For details including the program outline and bookings visit www.abaconference.org.au
We are delighted to announce that Tony Birch, friend to the bookseller, will give the keynote speech at the Australian Booksellers Association’s 97th conference. Tony brings a unique perspective to our industry, as a writer, reader, and academic.
Below is a short piece from Tony to share with you in advance.
I was fortunate to teach writing at the University of Melbourne for more than a decade, working within a range of genres. The course I enjoyed teaching most of all, and the one that generally produced the best writing was ‘Short Fiction’. It was an Honours level class, which meant that the workshop students were both dedicated and talented. An age-old argument about whether writing can be taught constantly impacted on the teaching of writing at Melbourne University, with criticism and even cynicism, emanating most strongly from Literary Studies academics within the same department that I taught. I don’t wish to bore people with a defence of the teaching of writing, except to comment that, yes, that I strongly believe that it can be taught, either very well or badly.
The success of a writing workshop depends, in part, on quality and conscientious teaching. But a writing workshop actually lives and dies on the commitment of the students; a commitment that requires generosity, diligence, an understanding that writing is work rather than a creative muse, and most importantly, a passion for reading and writing stories. While this final point may seem obvious, my ability to ‘pick a winner’ in a writing class was informed by the manner in which students initially responded as readers rather than writers. This observation was something more than making the oft-repeated claim that you cannot be a writer if you don’t read (which is true, of course). Listening to a student talk about a story they’d read, what they liked or even loved about a story was the strongest indicator as to how well the same student might perform as a writer.
The serious ‘critics’ in the class tended not to be the better writers. These were students who were quick to comment on the failures of a story, often on a weekly basis, no matter who it was that they had read. It was not uncommon for such students to develop stage fright when their own turn to share writing in the class was due. They were often unable to produce a story for the group to discuss. I never felt that such students were incapable of good writing. I believe that their own fixation on negative critique and ‘failure’ inhibited their ability to enjoy the act of creative writing itself.
Across a decade and more of teaching the short story I learned a lot about craft, taste and what constitutes a good story. In my experience some very good stories didn’t teach well. I do think that I was a dedicated and innovative teacher. Even so, perhaps the failure was mine? (I’ll never be sure). Raymond Carver is one of the most important short story writers of the twentieth century. And yet, I found it difficult to engage students with his work. I’ve never been certain as to why this was the case, except that my hunch was that my, mostly middle class and young writing students simply weren’t interested in the lives of characters haunted by domestic dysfunction of the Carver flavour. In the case of another remarkable writer, the Nobel Laurette Alice Munro, students responded with passion to her short stories, which at times also dealt with the complexities and even tragedies of domestic life. The difference between the reception of the work of the two writers was that Alice Munro’s stories have the ability to engage with ‘ordinary life’ with a degree of remarkable subtlety and nuance that lured students into a world they might otherwise prefer not to enter.
Across a semester I usually taught the work of around twenty writers, both established and emerging. As the majority of my students were young women, I always taught writing by younger more recently published writers, who might also function as mentors for my students. Two Australian writers in particular, Josephine Rowe and Ellen van Neerven were favourites of students. A. At the end of each semester, in the final class, I would encourage students to champion their favourite story from across the semester; to argue for it, to discuss its qualities and award it the prize of ‘Story of the Year’. I taught students who regularly made claims that they wanted their own writing to ‘challenge the genre’, to be ‘postmodern’, ‘experimental’ and even ‘dangerous’. They were often students who favoured ‘the next big experimental thing’. Sebald one year. Roberto Bolano the next. And yet, without fail, each semester, year in and year out, the same story was overwhelmingly voted as the story of the year.
Alistair Macleod’s short story, ‘The Boat’, is a classically beginning/middle/end story. It was one of several stories that I taught that resembled ‘mini-novels’, as I described them in my unsophisticated way. It is a story that begins with such a clarity of voice, mood and location that readers immediately feel intimately connected to both the story and the writer. It is a story that provides a reader with the comfort of knowing, within a page or two, that the next ten or fifteen minutes they spend reading black on write will be rewarded. Macleod is a writer of precision. He is also, most importantly, a writer deeply passionate about the human condition.
A fishing boat, and those who depend on it for their cultural and material welfare, is at the centre of the story. Through the boat itself, and the repeated question, ‘what did you do in the boat today?’, we come to understand how it is that a near nation of people displaced from the Scottish Highlands and migrating to Cape Breton on the west coast of Canada, survive and occasionally thrive. ‘The Boat’ epitomises what it is about storytelling that we value. It is a story set a world away from my Melbourne University classroom, in a time a place we had no experience of. And yet, the universal qualities found in ‘The Boat’, expressed through the love between a son and father, the beauty of a rugged and unforgiving landscape and the unexpected freedom granted to young women deemed unsuitable to ‘man’ the boat, always gathered a loving readership.
We grow up telling stories to each other. We sometimes repeat the same stories, over and over again, as at their heart, foundational stories contain the DNA of our identity. In countries such as Australia, colonial societies built on violence and deception, some people do not get to tell their own story. Or they have them co-opted and corrupted. The claims for truth-telling and the right to tell our own story is central to Indigenous consciousness today. This is not an act of censorship or an attempt to destroy the creative ‘right’ of non-Indigenous writers. It is a claim for dignity, self-determination, and most importantly, a desire to tell our own stories and enhance our own individual and communal lives. Such is the power of the story.
For up to date information on COVID-19 and Australia Post services please visit the Australia Post Impacts page