Monday, June 29, 2009

Sovereign to my whims: writing character 2

Okay, okay. My few but fabulous blog followers have objected to my nicking Neil Gaiman's tips on writing character in the previous post. I have explained that Gaiman's thoughts are merely a hook to haul in the blog-reader - and there at the end, nicely condensed, are my thoughts on character.

But it seems that's not good enough, or perhaps it's just not enough. I talked in an earlier post about a lecture I gave at Massey University here in Wellington about writing character in fiction, and to illustrate it I showed a photo of a real estate sign in Wellington which said For Lease: Character and pondered on how easy it would be to be able to lease such a thing for a novel or story... [Btw, when I took the pic the little green man on the crossing lights magically lit up like a character ready to lease! He's visiting again in the top corner of this post.]

Anyway, enough rambling. I thought as an offering to blogland, I'd throw up here the handout for my character lecture. It says everything in an orderly and precise fashion with a support comment by a writer after each point. I could try and write this out in lucid prose, but really, I don't have the time right now, and this seems to do the job. Apologies if some of the comments are a bit enigmatic. Feedback welcome!

A LIFE OF THEIR OWN – Writing character in fiction

1. Focus on the character traits you want revealed and when.
Richard Ford: Shed the responsibility towards what your character should do, and make them do what you want them to do.

2. Use a number of ‘blinks’ rather than long steady stares.
Stephen King: I don’t need to give you a pimple by pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown.

3. Avoid clichés. Challenge your ideas about what a character should be.
David Mitchell: A bank robber shouldn’t be tough, mean and scarred, they should be gay and Welsh. That’s a good fresh bank robber.

4. What you omit about the character is as important as what you show.

5. Let your characters escape their author. Give them dialogue and voice.

6. Layer your details bit by bit through the whole story until the character emerges.

7. Pay attention to how people think and act and feel. Characters should be verifiable and authentic.
Damien Wilkins: Men swear more when women aren’t around.

8. Make your characters dynamic, not static. They need to move and change.
Guy de Maupassant: He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.
Annie Proulx: Give them work to do. We all work in one way or another.

9. Use situations and other indirect ways of revealing character e.g. describing someone’s room or using an image (a birdlike woman can peck and flap.)

10. Be curious, let your characters surprise you. The more surprising they are the less knowable they are - which makes them more like people you’ve met.
Rachael King: The best piece of writing advice I ever got was to not make readers wonder what will happen next to your characters, but to make them wonder what they will do next.

Grace Paley: Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sovereign to my whims: writing character

From YA/child - ren's writer Neil Gaiman's blog where he answers questions from readers and other writers:

Hey Neil,

Wayward young writer here.I have a question concerning characters. Most of the writers I respect seem to create autonomous characters inside their own mind. This process sounds mad and delightful and impossible, at the moment. I feel that my characters are glaring flaws in my stories. I want them to feel real and sovereign to my whims, instead of contrivances.If you have any time to bestow some advice, I would greatly appreciate it. Just a revelatory aphorism or two. Also, thank you for so many wonderful stories. Your stuff is guiltless pleasure reading.

Sincerely, Dan Kelly

Gaiman: When I was a young writer I would come up with stories, and then put characters into them. And each of the characters would often feel like, in Thurber's words, "a mere device". I think the breakthrough for me came when I started writing comics -- because I believed in them. Because sometimes I would be using characters I hadn't created, but simply cared about. And over the next few years I learned that if you cared enough about your characters, what happened to them was interesting.

I'm not sure that's much of an aphorism, but it's important to care about them, about who they are and what they do. And (for me) for them to be people I would want to spend time with -- I don't really care whose side they are on, and they can be monstrous on the outside or, worse, on the inside, but you still have to want to spend time with them. If you met one of these characters socially would you talk to them, or make an excuse and flee?

As a sidenote, I think the years I spent as a journalist doing interviews for magazines really helped as well. I learned a lot about speech patterns, and ways of describing people, and letting their words describe them. But more importantly, I learned that if you are actually interested, and not faking it, people will tell you anything, and you will take pleasure in their company. So my suggestion for any young writer is, talk to people, especially people you would normally avoid talking to. Find out their stories. Figure out how you would put them into stories, if you would, or just describe them with a few words.

[Back to me again.] Great stuff from the indefatigable Neil Gaiman - especially that bit about really listening - and noting down vocab and syntax. I'd add to that: Make your characters move in a way only they would move. And give them work to do. And make them change in the story, and unpredictable. Not sure I feel you have to be able to spend meaningful time with characters you create, but I do believe you need to get your fingers right into whatever clay you use. Mary
[Illustration credit: one of the various artists on Gaiman's The Sandman comics link here, apologies for not being more specific.]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Yellow-coated author delight

This fabulous photo of author happiness is Christchurch-based Andrea who blogs as A Cat of Impossible Colour. She's just heard the Random House UK has accepted her book. Isn't it fantastic?

[Photo credit: Andrea] Andrea is only 24 years old and, with one novel under her belt in her homeland of Zimbabwe, she slogs away on subsequent novels at home in Christchurch, and has gone through a roller coaster of despair and hope waiting on international agents and publishers to show interest. I am in awe of her commitment. She is an example of what talent + sweat can do [not one or the other which too many of us rely on...] and she deserves every bit of her success.

Andrea is also mad on clothes - hence the very gorgeous yellow coat in the photo which, I am guessing, has just been bought. Her blog not only talks books, it also describes her adventures in vintage stores, the treasures she finds, the way she adapts them to look fantastic on her. Get this: she says one of her aims - apart from getting published - is to have a coat in every colour!

And followers? Andrea has stacks of people who follow her chirpy, honest, generous blog - the day she announced her book was being published there were 81 comments! Makes me think I should start dragging out some of my fashion offerings.......

...... or maybe not. Don't want to put people off.

Her book ... it's called Ngozi and through the eyes of a young girl it follows 'the struggle of one troubled white family to stay afloat in the collapsing economy and escalating horror of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.' Read more about it on Andrea's blog - roll down to thepost 'Bright Colours and Happiness', and further on you'll find not one but four or five pics of a leaping author in yellow!

Bravo Andrea.

And congratulations must go to to another Christchurch author who's done well overseas. Eleanor Catton has just won a major UK Award for first novels. It's the Betty Trask Award and Catton's novel The Rehearsal [VUP and Granta] is joint winner with Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness. The prize is a fantastic £8,000. I've heard whispers that this book could be up for other prizes in the UK which is hugely exciting.

The thing is, these UK coups are good news for all NZ authors, really. Shows what we can do - something to aim for - whets the appetite over there.... all of that.

Makes me want to go out and find myself a yellow coat.

Just. In. Case.

Monday, June 22, 2009

This place is Iran - for Neda

Somehow I'd missed it this morning when I posted here on a novel.

Somehow I didn't know what had happened when I wrote those flimsy things about words in a book.

An anonymous Iranian woman wrote about the death of Neda at a protest in Teheran in the weekend: 'the very end of your last glance burns my soul'. It does.

I can't forget those beseeching, terrified eyes. The flood of blood. A father's panic.

In this video made before Neda died, you can hear an Iranian woman speak about the injustices in her country. Here are words worth hearing.

Now I am helpless with knowing.

I'll have a Double please, Mr Saramago

Just finished Portuguese author José Saramago's The Double. One of those whizz-bang cowboy endings that I don't often find in the sort of books I read. Loved it. Loved the ending. Loved the book.

It's a fabulous tale in the sense of being a fable: a history teacher sees a man with a bit part in an old movie who is his identical twin. This sense that he is not unique in the world - and could in fact be simply a duplicate - eats away at the history teacher causing all sorts of crazy non-history teacher type behaviour.
Naturally enough, he stalks the bit-part actor and crashes his way into his mirror life with dire consequences - which is, I've discovered, usually what happens in literature when 'doubles' come together [I've been reading this sort of thing to inform my novel Precarious - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was my last 'doubles' read. ]

Saramago's novel is a wild blend of meta-fiction, philosophy, black comedy and farce. Here's a pic of some of that lovely meta-fictional stuff where the author steps out and comments on what he's just written about the thoughts of the history teacher who bears the marvellous name: Tertuliano Maximo Afonso.
The voice of The Double becomes increasingly obsessive and the novel reflects this - going for page after page with no paragraph or line breaks and with the dialogue running on from person to person without speech marks or new lines, not even a full-stop.
As you'd expect with an obsessive voice in your head for nearly 300 pages, it can get irritating and exhausting at times, but it is worth persevering because this novel is a tour de force. As a reader you are - for better or worse - right inside the heads of the history teacher and the bit-part actor and it's a weird weird place to be. Highly recommended.
I am very interested in reading more of the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago's work including Blindness, which has been made into a film. A fascinating insight into the author here on the Nobel website, including the issues he has had with identity himself.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thumb novels

A novel by text - it had to happen. I found this article online just now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A livid laureate - Duffy's first poem

Carol Duffy is the first female UK poet laureate in the job's 341-year history and already she's caused a stir with her first official poem Politics .

The poem is about the issue of political expenses which is raging in the UK. The Guardian says Duffy, who was appointed last month, has written 'a powerful, passionate commentary on the corrosiveness of politics on politicians and the ruinous effect on idealism.'

Go Carol Duffy! More here. Meanwhile, NZ has a female poet laureate at the moment - the wondrous Michele Leggott who is about to leave the annually-appointed position to allow another to step up.

Here's a poem of NZ laureates and an earlier blog post on Michele's work .

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beads on a String - Kirsty Gunn's art of writing

I've read Rain again. Author Kirsty Gunn is in Wellington as writer-in-residence at the Randell Cottage - a NZer, she's returned home from the UK and Scotland to pursue a project centred on Katherine Mansfield - and it's been a pleasure to catch up with her and hear her speak about and read from her work, and talk about other writers and their work.

It made me want to read something of Kirsty's again. So I opened up Rain. The lyricism and tautness in this short novel makes re-reading - not something I usually do - a wonderful pleasure. It's like reading poetry: the skilled and lovely language transports you.

When I first knew Kirsty, she was a poet like me. We were the two youngest members of one of Bill Manhire's early Original Composition workshops. There seemed to be a bunch of older, more experienced writers there including Jean Watson who published Flowers from Happyever at the end of the course. Kirsty remembers us explaining away the 'things' we brought along with the phrase 'this is just an experiment.'

Kirsty's poetic sensibility informs all of her fiction - in the way her language is exact, concise, freighted, original; and the way that language circles and pounces and uses repetition to create something incantatory, mesmeric. Rain, for example, brims with water in all its expressions. The breadth of Kirsty's vision in this concentrated drop of a novel is astonishing, almost shocking at times. Water is threatening, embracing, implacable, beautiful. The way people interact with it is an expression of them - the father with his fly fishing, the girl with her institute-learned swimming, the boy playing on the edges of the lake.

Speaking recently at a NZ Society of Authors meeting at the Thistle Inn in Wellington, Kirsty said that when she writes she gets the first line and 'a clear sense of place' and then she lets the story unfold piece by piece. By that, she means she writes a section over and over [sometimes seven or eight drafts] until it's done and then she moves on to the next section, and so on.

Kirsty Gunn:

It's like beads on a string [the way she writes a novel self-contained piece by piece ].

The story tells me what it's going to be.

She says an intense sense of place is pivotal in her work as it was in Katherine Mansfield's: the light, the colour, the setting. And she doesn't name the places but they are particular places nonetheless. Kirsty says by not naming the places she writes about she protects the privacy of the individual's sense of place. New Zealanders knew Rain was set in Taupo [there's the lake, the desert road....] but Scots imagined a lake in Scotland, Americans in America...

Then there's the tone or key of the story. Kirsty calls that her 'grounding place'. She likens this to painting and how artists build up colour layers in a painting - her novels [or 'things' as she prefers to call them] have an underlay of tone which cannot be argued with. It is, she says, like a kind of synethesia - she 'sees' the tone in the work.

Kirsty also talks about how the short story, being of limited space, sets 'an emotional temperature.' She suggests that to find this same thing in her longer work, she has been steadily shortening the time period covered - Rain is set over a summer, Keepsake at a time in a girl's life, Featherstone in a weekend, The Boy and the Sea over a summer's day.

While she's in Wellington [leaving September], Kirsty Gunn is working on a collection of short stories and a 'thing' called Thorndon which leaps genres and has Katherine Mansfield at its core. This is rather nice because the historic Randell Cottage is in Thorndon just up the road from KM's birthplace.
Kirsty will be talking more about her work at:

the IIML's Writers on Monday series: 12.15-1.15 pm, August 3 at Te Papa

the Massey University Writers Read series : 6 -7 pm, August 6 at the Wellington Campus 5D16 [Block 5] - drinks to finish, and 6 pm, August 7 at Palmerston North City Library.

These events are free. I'll be chairing the Massey events, so I'll continue to dip into Kirsty's books over the coming month or so. It's not all re-reading. Next up is 44 Things [Atlantic] which I haven't opened before - except to peek in the bookshop.

To find out more about Kirsty go here, and the Randell Cottage website will be updated with Kirsty's events over the coming weeks.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Congratulations Dame Sir Fiona

Dame Fiona Kidman has become a knight - or more exactly a 'Chevalier d'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres'. The surprise honour was presented at the home of the French Ambassador tonight [Wednesday] at a celebration of Dame Fiona Kidman's latest book - Beside the Dark Pool, the second volume of her memoir. The purpose of the honour is to recognise significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields.

The function at the home of French Ambassador Michel Legras and his wife Marlise was packed with Fiona's friends and family - with many familiar faces among them: writers like Patricia Grace, Vincent O'Sullivan, Marilyn Duckworth and Kirsty Gunn. I was lucky enough to be there, too, and was as surprised as any when the charming and unpredictable M. Legras announced the honour his government was bestowing on Fiona. There was an audible gasp, Fiona seemed to sink a little at the knees, and I noticed a few whose eyes filled with tears at the sight of the speechless Dame, now a knight.

After the Ambassador's speech, Fiona's publisher Harriet Allen spoke and then I was next up to talk about the book itself. If you have the stamina - the speech is below - without all the usual asides that go with these things - and tidied up a bit to make sense on the page. Afterwards, Fiona said a few words of thanks to the Ambassador and others who'd helped the book on its way, and her husband Ian stepped forward and stood beside her with his trademark impish grin. A wonderful - and most surprising - celebration of a wonderful book.

BESIDE THE DARK POOL, by Fiona Kidman [Speech]

Tena koutou katoa. Bonjour. It is a privilege to be here to celebrate Fiona Kidman's new book Beside the Dark Pool. It’s the second book in her memoir and in my opinion, one of the best she’s written. Fiona - let us not forget - has over 20 books to her name. Thank you to the French Ambassador and Madame Legras, Fiona and family for this wonderful evening.

I read At the End of Darwin Road - the first book of the memoir - when it first came out. It explores Fiona’s life up to the publication of her novel A Breed of Women. It is a fascinating exploration of a woman struggling to be a writer at a time in NZ of tremendous social change. Fiona said in that book that to succeed she needed to be : ‘single-minded, driven, often manic.' Those who know her well will no doubt agree that this is so.

A Breed of Women was published in 1979 and Sharon Crosbie declared to the women of NZ over National Radio: ‘Darlings I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for. This book is about us. We’re all in it.’ Women flocked to buy it. It was an important event in social as well as literary history, and the place Fiona Kidman - a woman with a social conscience and a yen to write - had been heading towards for the first forty years of her life.

No surprise, then, to find that Book Two of Fiona's memoirs opens with a political event – not any political event but Springbok Tour 1981 – ‘a time of civil unrest more ferocious than any that had gone before’ [Fiona Kidman.] Reviewer Harry Ricketts said on National Radio this week that Fiona's writing on the Tour is vivid and visceral – and up there with the most vivid writing on the Springbok Tour. It is.

There is an urgency in this book from the beginning - a sense of a woman who’s in her stride and has something to say. At the End of Darwin Road had a more reflective feel to it, a feeling of being in the 'dark pool'; this new book is more about making waves. The urgency is also there, I think, because it is about immediate past history and, for me, it is also because I was there.

In 1981, I was 19 years old and a student politician – albeit a tepid one – I was not nearly run-over on the motorway during an anti-tour demonstration like Fiona, or kicked in the stomach by police so it ruptured like her husband, Ian. Reading about what Fiona and Ian experienced is moving and upsetting stuff at times.

Politics in all its manifestations is a strong thread in this book. Fiona says she went from an ‘accidental activist in women’s issues to an actively committed political activist.’ If she hadn't been a writer, there is every indication she would have been a politician. [Ironically, not long before this point in the speech, Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson made himself known in the room and was hurried to the front to stand beside the Ambassador.]

The 1980's was a tumultuous time and Fiona was in the thick of it. There’s a marvellous scene in the book between her and Sir Robert Muldoon when she’s chair of PEN, and he is later to refer to her as 'one of the most intransigent young woman in NZ’. And there's a perplexing scene when Fiona shows support for the Labour Government’s anti-nuclear stance while in the New York office of her US publisher, to find her relationship with them cooling rapidly to the point where they reject her next book.

Literary politics took a nasty turn for Fiona with the fiasco over the purchase of a writers' flat in Bloomsbury, London, but she doesn't shy away from this in her memoir. She says she was against the flat because it was an elitist move which didn't reward the many writers - especially women - who didn't have the time or money to leave NZ. On the other side of the argument was CK Stead. The rest is history.

There is much in the book about Fiona’s involvement with writers' issues: her role in the genesis of Writers on Wheels – or WOW, the wonderful Writers Walk on Wellington's waterfront, Writers in Prisons, and the writers' residency Randell Cottage [which is how I've got to know Fiona.]

The Life of the Writer is the other strong thread in the memoir – not just novels but the scripts and articles that were Fiona’s bread and butter. Fiona describes the hard work involved and the marvellous stories behind the novels and stories e.g. Paddy’s Puzzle is a place where Ian lived once and which Fiona lets Ian describe. This is a writer after all who says – or quotes - ‘Don’t invent until the truth is exhausted.’ The overlapping of truth and fiction in her novels and her impulse to record real life in her journalism is a fascinating element in this book.

Fiona’s excitement at being a writer and part of the writer’s world is palpable. The thrill of writers festivals and travel abroad is explored in the book, and there are some wonderful vignettes about a range of internationally-known writers: Angela Carter, Fay Weldon, Margaret Attwood; and Fiona writes about her personal search to discover the life behind the writer Marguerite Duras.

There’s also her generosity to other writers – shown in her politics and in the writing classes she took for so many years, and in mentoring new writers like myself.

The third thread of this memoir is Fiona’s personal life. Fiona Kidman understands only too well what Kirsty Gunn calls the ‘terrible intimacy of family life.’ While trying to write and teach and fight for writers and others, Fiona Kidman has also had a family: children and then grandchildren to care for – sometimes unexpectedly – a mother to nurse for many years – a husband who nearly died twice.

There are two heart-breaking scenes in the book where Fiona is racing to be with family members who are dying. In one of them she is driving back and forwards in the middle of the night – exhausted -- between a husband and mother, both of whom are apparently at death’s door [both survived.]

The stuff of her family is incredibly moving – Fiona’s relationship with Ian [he contributes some marvellous stories directly to the narrative] especially their trips overseas together, and especially their trips to Asia. A visit to Greece to find her son Giles’ birth father is another highlight. Then there are Fiona’s deep friendships with the like of Lauris Edmond and Witi Ihimaera.

Up til now the reviews of Beside the Dark Pool have been by men. They tend to talk more about the political and the literary world - especially the upheavals - than the domestic.For me it is the skilful weaving of all three of these threads that makes this book so compelling. As a woman writer relatively new to the job I see the parallels with my own life at every turn of the page.

Harry Ricketts says anybody interested in the last 30 years of NZ literary history will need to engage with this book. That’s true, absolutely. You must also read this book if you want to engage with the life of an admirable writer and an admirable woman.

Beside the Dark Pool has the wonderful line: ‘We survive in this world and there are flashes of radiance.’ This book is one of those for sure.

Congratulations Dame Sir Fiona. May it sell well and be read by many.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Barry and the Muttonbirds

I'm a guest columnist on the Wellington.Scoop website while Lindsay Shelton is away in Spain. The brief was to write about anything in the greater Wellington region, so I wrote about Barry and the muttonbirds. Rather pleased with the piccy [and the article, actually.]

It occurs to me as I write this that my bird-loving blogger friends like Gondal Girl and Paradoxical Cat are going to think me a hypocrite - writing a stack of heartfelt posts about how marvellous birds are and then reporting enthusiastically on chomping through baby shearwaters wrenched from their burrows .... [what can I say?]

On a different note, I recommend Scoop.Wellington for a great way to keep up with what's happening in the capital city - Lindsay does some wonderful sleuthing round them thar streets and there are useful links to all sorts of activities and events.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Words fail me - a title anyone?

I've removed this lovely image because it attracts far too many views and I fear I am piggybacking someone else's genius. If you want to see it go here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Wolves had had a bad press and philosopher Mark Rowlands sets the record straight in this marvellous marvellous book published by Granta. As a young man, Rowlands adopts a wolf cub and trains it to live with him, but more importantly he falls in love with this wild, intelligent, loyal creature and is inspired to explore the nature of wolves and how they differ from humans, and what it was about his time living with Brenin the Wolf that made Rowlands a better person. This is one of those books that bends the mind around corners it may never have gone before. I am still pondering Rowlands' analysis of the moral contract we make with animals.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lit list not hit list? Meet the Montana finalists.

It's odd to have been in the boxing ring last year with The Blue and now to be watching from outside the ropes. The announcement of the Montana NZ Book Awards shortlist today certainly got arch-critic of the 2008 finalists, Beattie's Book Blog, warmed up again. The controversies which kept him busy last year - four books instead of the usual five in the fiction finalists and no shortlist for the First Book of Fiction - aren't issues this year, but his concerns are still with that pesky fiction list and what he identifies as a strong lean towards the literary.

First off, Bookman raises questions about the inclusion of Kate de Goldi's 10 PM Question. Not because it's highbrow, but because it's just won the NZ Post Children's Book Award and going for an adult prize looks like a case of mistaken identity. Personally, I like the book's chutzpah and for what it says about the highly successful but ghettoised world of children's fiction in this country. On top of this, 10 PM Question is a finely-crafted, compelling novel sold to and enjoyed, I'd guess, by more adults than children. It's topped the adult fiction list and - anecdotally - I know more adults who've loved it than children. But is it an adult novel?

Bookman links to a Paula Morris review which says 'no' mainly due to inconsistencies in Frankie's voice and a lack of distance between narrator and action. My blog opinion on 10 PM Question is here, and I stick to that, but since this morning, I've been pondering the question Bookman poses: Is it an adult novel? Judged purely on readership, and on my own excitement about it, I'd have to say 'yes'.

On it's qualities as a novel, I'll say this - a good author like Kate de Goldi allows apparent inconsistencies in voice of a first person narrator to let the reader in and uses a range of tricks to cover his/her tracks; and as far as 'distance' goes, the adult sensibility of Frankie does - I believe - create distance. Finally, 10 PM Question may not have the complexities and ironies of Charlotte Randall's shortlisted novel Crocus Hour but then Randall's novel doesn't have the rich characterisation or humour of de Goldi's. How to judge? Last year I attended a forum where the Montana judges discussed the choices they'd made ...

The quirky Crocus Hour is another novel Bookman Beattie believes isn't up to the fiction shortlist. It certainly hasn't whipped up much excitement in reviewer ranks but that doesn't always mean it's a bad book. I am a Randall fan and while I recognise her latest novel is not up there with her brilliant and award-winning The Curative, it is still an exciting read that takes some welcome risks. My blog opinion is here. For the same reasons, Bookman queries YA author Bernard Beckett's first adult novel Acid Song. Having not read it, I can't comment except to say I have talked to readers captivated by this book of ideas.

For different reasons, Bookman wonders about the inclusion of newbie novelist Ellie Catton's The Rehearsal. He's concerned about its literariness and the difficulties people have reading it. Look, I haven't read this one despite promising to, but I have heard Ellie read from it, and the intricate and intelligent loops her language took impressed me deeply. I'm guessing that's what's impressed her UK publisher Granta and the Montana judges.

Fifth on the list, and okay with the Bookman, is Emily Perkins' Novel About My Wife. It's already met with considerable success overseas and rave reviews here and is my pick for the winner. [And before I forget the short list for Best First Book of Fiction, Catton's The Rehearsal has to take this one out, but fantastic to see a fave of mine Bridget van der Zijpp's Misconduct in there.]

So is the Bookman right? Is Montana fiction this year a lit list not a hit list? I like to see challenging novels that take risks up there in the finalist ranks of our national book prize. If there's only one major prize this is what it must do, surely. It's all about that thing called the pursuit of excellence. And so yes, these sorts of novels are usually more lit than hit, although de Goldi's novel is a definite bestseller. At the same time, I agree with Bookman that it would be great to see us follow the UK model and have a parallel prize system which recognises that heart-warming necessity: a 'good read.' Sponsors step forward please...