Recently ABC-TV here in Australia had the 2012 finale of First Tuesday Book Club – a monthly look at books and writing hosted by Jennifer Byrne – doing their year-end special. This year it was ’10 Aussie Books To Read Before You Die’.
The way it worked was that the producers of the show put up a list of 50 books (maybe more) on their website and viewers of the show had a few months to go in and vote for their favourites. If, like me, none of your favourites were on the list, you had the option of adding them at the end. Fair call. Now, we all knew this was not going to be a wide cross-section of the Australian population. It was made up of, not surprisingly, viewers of the ABC and those who listen to ABC radio stations. To say that these people have their finger on the pulse of Australia is like saying politicians never tell lies. These people tend to be members of older demographics, or those of a higher academic pretence than most. (Of course, not all – I watch the ABC – but in general.)
However, I think that people voted for books that they thought should have been the best Australian books, and not necessarily ones they actually enjoyed reading. They felt important or had something to say or were capital-L Literature. Peoiple didn’t want to put down books they actually read for fear of appearing not pretentious enough. At least, that’s how it appears to me reading the list. Because surely there are not that many people out there who think some of these are books every Australian should read… unless they hate Australians.
Here’s the top 20:
20. The Tree of Man – Patrick White (haven’t read it… it’s Patrick White, so I don’t think I’ll bother either.)
19. The Riders – Tim Winton (couldn’t get into it, gave up after 50 pages or so. It’s Tim Winton and it’s dull. In 100 years, the term ‘Tim Winton’ will come to mean “dull and overrated”.)
18. Monkey Grip – Helen Garner (yeah, not a bad book, all told, if not a touch depressing.)
17. The Broken Shore – Peter Temple (haven’t read it.)
16. Power Without Glory – Frank Hardy (I liked this one, a well-written book with characters that were interesting and involved the reader. Should have featured much, much higher.)
15. Eucalyptus – Murray Bail (haven’t read it.)
14. True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey (not a bad book, but it felt overdone.)
13. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin (dull, but I read it all the way through, and again with the depressing ending.)
12. My Brother Jack – George Johnston (I read this for high school, and hated it, but went back to it a few years after and really enjoyed it. This should also have been much higher.)
11. Seven Little Australians – Ethel Turner (of it’s time, but not a bad book, truth be told.)
10. Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay (very Gothic, but not as good as most other Gothic novels. Just too many tedious sections of constant description. Still, certainly not a bad novel.)
09. The Secret River – Kate Grenville (tried to read it, couldn’t get into it; another example of a book where the message overwhelms the writing and the story, to the detriment of all of it.)
08. The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas (again, tried to read it after everyone raved about the mini-series, but I gave up quickly; another depressing book, where everyone is the bad guy.)
07. The Magic Pudding – Norman Lindsay (yes, a hundred times yes – definitely one of the best Australian books ever written; my children are now enjoying it, a hundred-plus years after it was written.)
06. Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey (haven’t read it, but after seeing the show, I don’t think I’ll bother.)
05. The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay (not too bad, but it felt overdone; Courtenay was a masterful story-teller, and this is a fine example of his work.)
04. The Harp in the South – Ruth Park (depressing and I didn’t get into it, maybe because I couldn’t relate to any part of it.)
03. A Fortunate Life – A.B. Facey (read this at school, over-analysed it [as schools are wont to do] and found it a good story, but all that reading of it killed it for me.)
02. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (haven’t read it, but it seems yet another Australian book based on depression and a part of history that overwhelms everything about the story.)
01. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton (dull. Should not have been number 1. But I find Tim Winton dull in general.)
So what did I vote for?
The three books I put forward were:
Pig by Kenneth Cook (my favourite Australian book and one of the best horror books I’ve read, up there in my top 10 easily.)
Half Days And Patched Pants by Max Colwell (a story of Australia in the past that is funny while it tells its tale, made all the more poignant for me by being set where my father’s family grew up.)
The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco by John Birmingham (sequel to He Died With a Felafel In His Hand is funnier and more bizarre; it’s autobiographical, but it’s a superb story.)
Okay, so what it means is that people have an inflated sense of the sorts of books people want to read, or they feel people need to read things because it’s good for them.
What about reading books that are popular, that people enjoy for themselves, not reading out of a sense of obligation?
Just adding to what I think’s wrong in Australian publishing, literature and books.