samedi 9 juin 2012

A riposte to Kathleen Steele’s review of The Great Australian Novel

In May 2012, a review of the translation of my second book prefaced by Nicholas Jose, The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama, came out in Transnational Literature, the third of its kind in Australia for a book that offers a bird’s eye view of Australian fiction.[1] The French edition, Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours (Paris: Hermann, 2009), was hailed to critical acclaim by specialists and non specialists alike (in New Caledonia, France, Australia and the USA) and is currently out of print. The Australian edition translated by Dr. Marie Ramsland is panned for the second time by yet another mean-spirited writer who, like the other reviewer, has no book to her credit and who can claim no significant achievements in the field of Australian Studies. I proceed hereafter with making a list of Kathleen Steele’s mistakes in her review:

Mistake 1 : “ … a panoramic view cannot linger over details, and so it is with The Great Australian Novel; and while one does not expect deep analysis in a text with such an ambitious range, over-simplistic plot explanations take the place of critical analysis more often than is desirable in a book aimed at academia”.

My response: The book was never aimed at academia. It was originally published in France by Hermann, an academic publisher, because this is where the French market for such a book lies (which I guess is a fair giveaway of the average French citizen's interest in Ozlit!). The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama is lingo-free and has a playful approach specifically to entertain the general punter.

Mistake 2 :Some of Vernay’s observations of Australian culture will not hold up to scrutiny. For example, ‘It would seem that, ever since the birth of the Australian novel, equality existed since the book published after Quintus Servinton was Woman’s Love (1832) by Mary Leman Grimstone’ (25). Implying women writers in Australia had, or have, little difficulty finding an outlet for their work because the second book that was published in the colony had a female author is simply naïve”.

My response: Here is the original text: “It would seem that, ever since the birth of the Australian novel, equality existed since the book published after Quintus Servinton was Woman’s Love (1832) by Mary Leman Grimstone (who was born and died in the nineteenth century). Because the work was finished in Hobart four years earlier, well before the publication of Quintus Servinton, it deserves to be recognised as the first novel written in Australia.” 
Where did Miss Steele read that I am “[i]mplying women writers in Australia had, or have, little difficulty finding an outlet for their work”. I guess I have to put this down to reading too much between the lines.

 Mistake 3 :Vernay’s appraisal of White’s reception in Australia is equally disturbing:
When he [White] received the Nobel Prize in 1973,the year The Eye of the Storm was published, Patrick White became the living proof of the reputation Australian literature had established worldwide. But not man is a prophet in his own country and his case demonstrates how difficult it is to obtain recognition from one’s peers in a country that supports mediocrity. So Australian writers have to aspire for international recognition without which they are not given a place of honour at home. (98-101)
To insist that Australians ‘support mediocrity’ because White has, at times, suffered less attention than his oeuvre deserves, suggests Vernay has perhaps been unfairly influenced by White’s own attitude to the critical reception of his work within Australia.”

My response: Here is the original text: “But no man is a prophet in his own country and his case demonstrates how difficult it is to obtain recognition from one’s peers in a country that supports mediocrity.” This last bit is a veiled reference to “The tall poppy syndrome” which is Wikipedianly defined as “a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers”. This syndrome has already been widely discussed by several Australian commentators.

Mistake 4 : His statement that Tim Winton’s themes arise as ‘a direct consequence of feeling marginalised, as with all those who live in Western Australia, his protagonists are uninformed individuals who grow up on the edge of society’, suggests (incorrectly I hope) that all Western Australians are uninformed.

My response: Had Miss Steele been bilingual, she would have realized that my translator has overtranslated my original phrasing : “Conséquence directe du sentiment de marginalisation qu’ont les natifs de l’Australie occidentale, ses protagonistes sont des individus lambda qui évoluent à la lisière de la société” which was translated as “A direct consequence of feeling marginalised, as with all those who live in Western Australia, his protagonists are uninformed individuals who grow up on the edge of society.” The phrase “individus lambda” should have been translated as “the average citizen” and therefore should have read in The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama: “A direct consequence of feeling marginalised, as with all those who live in Western Australia, his protagonists represent the average citizen who grows up on the edge of society.” But my statement is a comment on Winton’s characters, not Australians, both being tactlessly conflated by Miss Steele.

Mistake 5 : Sonya Hartnett’s novel Of a Boy is the thirteenth she published not the first…”

My response: Of a Boy is indeed Sonya Hartnett's first unambiguously adult novel. As any keen observer might have realized after close reading The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama, my quite comprehensive essay does not cover juvenile fiction. And Sonya Hartnett has indeed published a lot of young adult novels and some, like The Glass House (1990), border on both genres – i.e. adult and young adult fiction.

Mistake 6 : “…and Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously was published in 1978 not 1972. The last is a strange mistake indeed for a scholar who wrote his dissertation on the literature of Koch.”

My response: The latter comment is insulting as Kathleen Steele implies that I do not have my facts rights when it comes to Koch scholarship. Once again, if Steele read the original version, there is nothing I can be blamed for. I got everything right, and there is indeed a minor typo in the translation. Dr. Ramsland meant 1982, not 1972. But Miss Steele is wrong once again, as she refers to this passage: “The popular and critical success of the novel was such that it was adapted for the screen by Peter Weir (1972) and for the theatre by Andrew Ross (1999) as evidence of its universal scope.” The infelicity is related to the film adaptation, not to Koch’s novel.

I will not elaborate on this hostile reading, but drawing on such minor mistakes (not to mention petty and fallacious arguments) to pan a book makes anyone question the ethics of the critic and the real motivations behind such viciousness.   

In my opinion, there are essentially four ways of killing a book: 

1) indifference (no reviews and no possibility of discussing the book in the media, at festivals, at launches), 
2) vicious reviews, 
3) low quality publishing, 
4) and poor distribution.

I cannot claim that my book was obscured by indifference and I am thankful to The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and Transnational Literature for running reviews of The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama . I am also indebted to Jane O’Hara, Christa and Charles Billich, Elaine Lewis and David and Jennifer Lathwell for giving me the opportunity to discuss my book at festivals and special events. Will I dare say that Brolga offers low quality publishing and poor distribution? Brolga, like many independent houses, expects their authors to edit and proofread manuscripts, hence the occasional typos. And when Marie Ramsland suggested we could submit the manuscript to Brolga which had a history of publishing Australiana, I rejoiced over the fact that their website boasted having national distribution through Pan Macmillan. 

"Brolga Publishing's services include National Book Trade Distribution in Australia, and professional Sales and Marketing services. A major advantage for you as a Brolga author is our contracted National Distributor, Pan Macmillan, one of the country's largest book distributors."


 But when I walked in Sydney’s and Melbourne’s major bookshops after the book was released nationally in December 2010 to find out if they held my book, Abbeys in Sydney had a few copies in the Recent Releases section, most other bookshops didn’t. A few months ago I spotted another copy in Carlton’s Readings bookshop. Sadly enough, The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama was not placed in the impressive large shelf dedicated to Australian Studies, but simply discreetly stowed away in the Reading Guide section.

Another question that might be worth asking is – Did Marie and I had other publishing options? 

Most publishers we addressed, and sometimes with just a letter querying the possibility of publishing such a book, immediately declined the offer. And Michael Heyward who is perhaps the most vocal about taking up the cudgels for Australian Fiction[2] and who has published Elif Batuman’s similar passionate venture (but with Russian novels, not Australian ones), also rejected the idea of publishing an essay discussing Australian novels. By the way, I love Elif Batuman who has done a great job with her book, and my comment does not aim at criticizing The Possessed. We've met at Brisbane Writers Festival 2010, and she is an extremely nice woman.

Is there any need for me to list the numerous setbacks Marie and I went through?

I can only focus on what I have gained through this experience:

1)      an academic translator spontaneously offered to share with her fellow citizens this narrative about the richness of Australian writing;
2)      three funding bodies in New Caledonia[3] readily accepted to cover the translation costs and the publishing rights for the Australian market (because there are no existing funding bodies in Australia that would cover translations of foreign works with Australiana content into English, while funding is available for Australian works to be translated into other languages);
3)      a publisher was game enough to embark on this adventure;
4)      an expert in Australian writing generously wrote a preface;
5)      and another expert in Australian Studies acknowledged the 15-year research effort to produce this potted history.

Did anyone think of making a list of the sporadic infelicities and of sending it to the publisher so that the next Brolga edition (rest assured that there will be none!) be to the standards of nit-picking reviewers?

Did anyone offer to edit the book any further to pander to the taste of temperamental reviewers?

Did anyone offer to work on a typo-free English or American edition (given that I had made public that I still hold the English rights of The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama  for all English-speaking countries but Australia)?

Have I been invited to any Australian university to discuss my book with colleagues and students since its release?
Alas, no.

A good friend of mine once wrote: “Disregard the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The writing is good and the spirit is strong.” No matter how much I feel I should follow Geoff’s piece of wisdom, I cannot but highlight the national inconsistency in whinging about the lack of efforts to promote Australian fiction – Rosemary Neill’s article being one of so many statements sounding the alarm bell in recent years – on the one hand and, on the other hand, having to face lack of support (from critics, bookshop owners, the schools, colleges and universities) and the persistent blows to pan the very book that could help with publicizing Australian literature. And to avoid any further overinterpretation of my work from Kathleen Steele, I will add that my book is no substitute to Peter Pierce’s companion, Nicholas Jose’s anthology, Ken Gelder’s monographs, to name a few – if that is the underlying fear, because all these narratives usefully add up to this national effort of promotion.

As Kathleen Steele rightly observes, “the opportunity The Great Australian Novel presented has been lost.”
-          Lost for the Australian novelists mentioned in the book who could have benefitted from a larger readership,
-          lost for the publishing industry that could have sold more novels,
-          and lost for Australian readers to make an informed opinion for themselves because most will take Steele’s vicious review for granted.

Having said this, what is of utmost importance is that Dr. Marie Ramsland’s enthusiasm and translation skills have managed to convey my infectious love for Australian fiction and that in itself is a feat that I warmly welcome. For translation is not all about words it is also about the spirit of the letter.

Jean-François VERNAY.

[1] Kathleen Steele, Transnational Literature, May 2012. The two previous reviews being: Peter Pierce The Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 21/05/2011, p.35 and James Ley, The Weekend Australian (Spectrum), 11-2/06/2011, p.21.
[2] Rosemary Neill, “Patrick White revival signals a new chapter for Australian literary classics,” The Australian,  May 12, 2012
[3] My deepest appreciation goes to the Province Sud, the Gouvernement de la Nouvelle-Calédonie and the Mission aux Affaires culturelles for their generous support.

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