Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Major quibble

As I said on my Nine to Noon media comment the other
week, the Book Council’s new-look quarterly Booknotes
is an impressive improvement on its predecessor: big,
open, handsomely designed (though you have to search
for the picture captions) and reader-friendly, with greater
diversity of content. Well done, Susanna Andrew and team.
The standout piece is a thoroughgoing argument by Paula
Morris for a better way of giving out national book prizes,
but there’s also Owen Marshall on the value of writers’
keeping a journal and more, as they say, much more.

Looking through the autumn edition again, however, I find
I have one major quibble, if a quibble’s allowed to be major:
it’s the tendency (by no means exclusive to Booknotes) to
puff up a writer by itemizing all their awards and honours
or bestowing epithets like ‘widely acclaimed’ or ‘critically
acclaimed’ on their works. Take the biographical footnote
to Marshall’s contribution. In full, it reads:

Owen Marshall has written, or edited, 23 books.
He has received various awards and fellowships
including the Robert Burns Fellowship and the
Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in
Menton, France. His novel, Harlequin Rex, [sic]
won the Montana Book Awards Deutz Medal for
fiction, and was made an ONZM for services to
literature [a unique achievement, I think, for an
inanimate object]. The University of Canterbury
awarded him…

But it’s too boring to go on. This is the kind of stuff lifted
from blurbs and publicists' media releases and, in this case
anyway, it has not even been properly proof-read. It’s
pompous and tedious, and does the writer no favours—
Owen himself, most self-effacing of men, would I’m sure
not wish it to be wheeled out on his behalf. It seems to be
driven by the sheer terror of simply saying that someone
is a writer and these are some of the things they've written
—as if that somehow wasn't enough. As if the awards and
honours are what writing’s really about. Even the
quantification—23 books, count 'em—plays to an
impoverished idea of writing: more, it seems, is better.

If there has to be a footnote—and for someone like Marshall
in a subscriber publication like Booknotes I’m not sure it’s
needed at all—then why not something like this...

Joe Blow has had a couple of novels published
and three more rejected. He sits in a room by
himself most of the time looking at a computer
screen but sometimes goes for walks. He loves
reading and writing but has no skill whatsoever
as a public speaker or literary festival panellist
and, should he ever be awarded a prize, would
prefer to receive it by mail, or, better still, have
it direct-credited to his bank account.


Old Geezer said...

Quite right.

There are unfortunately some people who will never be happy till every human endeavour is organised into competitive sporting leagues with prizes and awards and public appearances.

What humbug!

Most writers are boring sods. The few who have anything really interesting to say should put it on paper, and avoid public appearances at all costs.

Lindsay Rabbitt said...

Good post, Denis. Are we experiencing the death of the editor?