by Christine Williams
Our first Impressions article for the year – and with it an acknowledgement of the great legacies left by writers who have influenced our lives and our ideas so significantly – and, so often, unobtrusively. Now we’re already, so quickly, into the business cycle of 2019, I’ve decided to take stock of time rushing away – especially after the death of a close friend, Jeremy Gilling, Chair of the Sydney School of Arts & Humanities Advisory Committee.
Jeremy was a longtime activist for human rights, a writer, journalist and editor. He was known for his piercing mind, kind heart and gentle manner.
He was jailed twice, in 1969 and 1970, when he argued, on conscientious objector grounds, against the draft of young men being sent to fight in the Vietnam War. His case was refused by the courts twice, but in 1971 he was granted Conscientious Objector status.
As an editor at The Australian for many years, Jeremy was known for his love of language, grammar and punctuation. For these qualities and his patience, generosity and skill as a proof reader, he is sorely missed. He loved reading, an activity which sustained him for almost five years after a diagnosis of a brain tumour, which finally claimed his life last month.
One of the saddest measures of time’s relentlessness is to think about those friends who’ve died, and that includes friends we may have made via print or screen, through their writing and our sharing, of their stories. Among Australian writers who died last year and are sorely missed are Peter Corris (a very prolific crime writer and many believe our best), Jill Kerr Conway who wrote of the extremes of outback NSW and New York, and Peter Temple, a South African-turned-Australian whose Jack Irish television series is probably his best-known work. And just this week has come news of the death of journalist, author and historian Les Carlyon.
Carlyon, a Companion of the Order of Australia, was a former editor of The Age, editor-in-chief of The Herald and Weekly Times group, a frequent contributor to The Bulletin and a visiting lecturer in journalism at RMIT University. In addition to his career in journalism, Carlyon also wrote six books on sport and Australian history in his lifetime, including the critically acclaimed Gallipoli and The Great War. And on the world stage, among our great losses are extraordinary writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘America’s greatest living science fiction writer’ who preferred to be known simply as an American novelist; Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul whose work leapt out of the West Indies in the ’60s; cosmologist Stephen Hawking whose powerful mind stretched the limits of our own mental capacities; the incisive social commentator-as-novelist Tom Wolfe; the best-selling author of A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle; and Philip Roth whose ground-breaking novel Portnoy’s Complaint back in 1969 was just the beginning of what would become extensive harrowing meditations on greed, fear, racism, political ambition, sex and death, explored through fiction into the C21st, and leading to his 2006 PEN/Nabokov Award for a ‘body of work … of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship’. But I’d like now to turn attention to another worldwide ‘popular’ writer whose reputation as a skilful ‘literary’ author is said to have suffered as a result of her popularity
Anita Shreve: A postumous appreciation of the work of one of America's East Coast best selling novelists.
It’s almost a year since the prolific and talented writer Anita Shreve died (March 29, 2018) – and I’ve been thinking she deserves a continuing tribute for her lasting contribution to ‘the common good’. Shreve produced so much food for pleasure and thought through her well-constructed plots with satisfying endings and her sympathetic yet complex characterisations. Recently I read two of her novels in a row – just like that – pow! A Change in Altitude and Rescue were so accessible, so simple to read, yet also so realistic. They were the first novels of hers I’d read for some years, undertaken only once my head was empty of all the part-stories on the go in our meet up groups & also the manuscripts I’ve been editing and proof-reading for our own publication list here at Sydney School of Arts & Humanities. I thought I’d try a middle-ofthe-road popular novelist to see what the rest of the world was reading, and once again her work turned out to be such an easy indulgence! I felt so safe in her experienced hands, her timing was so well-versed. For example, in A Change in Altitude we were part of a group climbing Mt Kenya. The focus was on relationships in the group and then a steady attention on putting one foot in front of the other, the scree, the details of getting across the glacier, the mundane, the concentration on rhythm - and suddenly someone goes flying off into a ravine. In an instant! Shreve was so adept at the art of surprise. In Rescue, the simply-presented narrative covers almost twenty years, dipping into the essential scenes of an extraordinary relationship in detail while also skipping across the time period like an accomplished skater.
The characters certainly showed their flaws yet I was on their side – on both of their opposing sides. And as the plot developed I was telling myself it couldn’t reach such a cosy ending, could it? After all, troubled relationships and loss – Shreve’s forte – are such starkly brutal subjects to deal with in life, and often even harder to manufacture on the page/screen. I pondered all the possible pitfalls. Until, yes, the story came to a happy resolution, leaving this reader to imagine the great climax I longed for. Anything good is possible, I thought, realising that engendering that feeling of hopefulness about life is perhaps a novelist’s greatest feat within her literary bag of tricks.
Literary vs popular – why does the ‘literary establishment’ maintain the division? I feel it’s pertinent to refer here to how Shreve’s body of work was received and categorised as a whole. Her first novel, Eden Close was considered a novel of ‘sensibility’, which The New York Times reviewer, Carolyn Banks saw as having keen insights, ‘its language measured and haunting’. Yet in an interview with The Irish Independent, Shreve once referred to how her reputation had changed from what might be described as ‘literary’ to ‘popular’ after Oprah Winfrey recommended her novel, The Pilot’s Wife, for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998. ‘I don’t think I could ever say aloud that I’m sorry that the Oprah call happened, because I’m not - but I paid for it,’ she said.
Shreve too was paid in turn, from sales royalties the following year! And a television movie was made of the story in 2002. A fitting ending for such an optimistic author. Shreve liked to write with pen and paper and said she couldn’t explain how her writing, came about but the process went ‘from the head to the arm to the hand to the pen to the paper’. Anita Shreve was aged 71 at the time of her death. She’d produced a prodigious range of work in both fiction and non-fiction genres, including 19 novels published during her lifetime, another of which The Weight of Water, was transformed into a feature film by director, Kathryn Bigelow. It’s heartening to think that her literary skills and depth of understanding of human relationship were appreciated so widely and can remain accessible in print and online way beyond the time limits of her passing.