Unless you’ve been living under an Uluru-sized rock, or you live outside this land girt by sea, you may have missed that Charlotte Wood did indeed win the Stella Prize, as I predicted
here. (Although to be fair, others also predicted it – like the illustrious Kate W).
Last week, on a rainy, autumnal Melbourne evening, I trooped along to hear Ms Wood being interviewed with a panel of other authors in celebration of her success. I listened enraptured – I am, after all, a total groupie – to Charlotte Wood, Peggy Frew (Stella shortlisted author of Hope Farm), and Alice Pung (award winning author and one of the Stella Prize judges).
During this totally engrossing discussion, I learned 5 things about writing and publishing, as well as a little bit about Seinfeld.
1. Short story collections are the literary equivalent of Merlot
During the too short hour in which the packed-to-the-rafters audience listened intently to the panel, it was remarked several times that short story collections are considered by publishers to be unfashionable and un-sellable – reminding me of Merlot, post-Sideways. Apparently, if these collections are to be considered at all, the stories really ought to be ‘linked’ in some way. Meanwhile, memoirs are de rigeour. They will be snapped up by publishers and readers with alacrity – the literary equivalent of Sauvignon Blanc.
(I imagine blogs are somewhere floundering in a metaphorical barrel of cleanskins – you may find a treasure but much of it’s dross).
2. Australian writers earn bugger all
With Charlotte Wood the Stella Prize has not just found an excellent story-teller, but also a torchbearer. In her acceptance speech, which can be viewed here, and in her Melbourne gig, she spoke about the artistic funding landscape in general, and also just how little Australian writers earn – it’s something bonkers like $4000 (or £2000 a year). I don’t know, but I presume these statistics are similar to others writers’ incomes across the globe.
The solution? Buy more books. Unwittingly invoking my wine theme, Ms Wood noted that most people won’t hesitate to spend $25 on a bottle of wine, but quibble about spending that on a book. (Amazon has a lot to answer for, I think). And in general, we all need to ‘give a shit about art and literature’, she says.
3. American readers can’t handle swearing or smoking
Mentioned merely in passing as she read a passage from her book, Charlotte Wood noted that the American publishers of The Natural Way of Things deleted her sweary words, as well as the references to smoking. Clearly, Australian readers are made of tougher stuff than our American counterparts- or at least that’s what publishers think. I’d be interested in knowing what the UK publishers omitted, if anything. Jan Hicks, will you report back please?
4. Stella’s machinations
The Stella Prize judges long-listed 120 books for the prize and then when it came to selecting the ultimate winner, the judges locked themselves in a hotel room from 9am -4pm to decide on the winner. How I would have loved to have been in that position…
5. When in doubt, do the George Costanza
In the 86th episode of Seinfeld, George decides that every decision he has every made has been wrong, and that to turn his life around he needs to do the exact opposite of what he would usually do. He orders the opposite of his normal lunch in Monk’s Cafe, and then he introduces himself to a beautiful woman by saying, ‘My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents’. To his surprise, she’s impressed and agrees to go out with him.
Apparently Charlotte Wood employed the George Costanza approach when she encountered a writer’s block with The Natural Way of Things. She had been trying to place the book in its historical context, given much of it is based on the reality of girls’ experiences in the Hay Institute – a girls’ reformatory established in outback NSW in the 1960s. Then, in a George Costanza moment, she turned it all on its head and decided to situate it in the present – a move that unblocked her writing, and ensured that her novel would be marked out as a stellar contribution to our literary landscape.