Archive | if:book Essays

The Death of Negative Man

the noobzI’ve given up reading superhero comics three times. The first time was when I finished primary school in 1979. Until then I’d been an enthusiastic consumer of the black and white reprints of DC and Marvel comics produced by Australia’s Planet and Newton Comics, but as I prepared for high school I decided it was time to give my-then favourites Green Arrow and the original X-Men away in favour of interests more in synch with my newfound maturity.

Of course it didn’t stick. A little over a year later, in 1981, I started reading them again. My parents’ marriage had just ended, I was thirteen, overweight, desperately lonely and flunking out at school, so I’m sure it was at least partly about comfort, about returning to something I understood, and which repaid the sort of emotional energy I invested in them by providing me with a sprawling, endlessly evolving and richly imaginative world to explore.

I tried again in my final year of high school. This time it was little more than an interregnum, a blip of a few months, meaning that by the time I started university I was back on the drip.

Somewhere during the decade and a half that followed I pretty much stopped reading mainstream superhero comics, transitioning to the sorts of titles DC was producing through its Vertigo imprint, although if the truth be told my happiest moments often involved moments like the appearance of the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, or revisionist riffs on the superhero like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol.

But by the time I was in my early 30s I’d had enough. Most of the titles I read had petered out, and given it was the dark days of the mid-1990s, there wasn’t much new that appealed to me, so when the final issue of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles appeared I decided to draw a line under my life as a comic nerd.

Yet as Renton famously observes in Trainspotting, there are last hits and there are last hits. And, as the years passed, I discovered I couldn’t stay away. At first it was just the occasional deniable dalliance, but slowly my habit started to get more serious again, a process that has only accelerated in the past few years by the instant fix of digital comics.

Alan Moore often seems to take a little more pleasure in annoying mainstream comics audiences than is really seemly, but I suspect his recent comments about superhero comics being a form aimed at boys of 9-13 which have somehow become the preserve of 30, 40 and 50-something men are pretty much on the money. Yet my love of comics – and superhero comics in particular – isn’t just about wish-fulfilment or the need to keep returning to the things that delighted me as a child or the slightly nerdish delight associated with an awareness of sprawling continuities that stretch back decades (in her excellent study of superhero comics, Superheroes, the critic Roz Kaveney observes correctly that the Marvel and DC universes represent the largest narrative constructions ever created). Continue Reading →

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Skulking in Dark Alleys

the noobzIt was pitch black in Verity Lane, and the mid-winter drizzle added to the eeriness. I generally avoid these dark back streets, having narrowly escaped being mugged in one nearby years earlier, but I had books to distribute, and at the other end of this service courtyard stood Smiths Alternative, Canberra’s most bohemian bookshop.

At the time, Smiths was run by Jorian Gardner, the trilby-wearing director of Canberra’s Fringe Festival, and Domenic Mico, a former director of one of the city’s largest arts centres. Their clientele visited Smiths to hear poetry readings, drink coffee and wine and attend gigs. Sometimes, they even bought books and zines.

As is the nature of these things when you’re juggling a six-month-old baby, a three-year-old, a Masters degree, two teaching gigs, a magazine publishing job and your ebook start-up, time was short. I hadn’t managed to forewarn the booksellers of my impending arrival, so I was relieved to spot them as I slipped out of the alley and within sight of Smiths.

‘Hi Jorian,’ I said as he pushed a rack of indie fashion items through the side door. ‘I think you know about my new publishing venture? Would Smiths be interested in taking a couple of copies of [Anna Maguire’s] Crowdfund it!?’

The former radio shock jock filled his partner in. ‘She’s a REAL publisher, Domenic. Publishing books professionally, here. At Gorman House. Of course we’ll take some, Charlotte. We’ll buy them outright. Is a 30 percent discount OK? Email me an invoice.’

Just like that, I had my first retail partnership in my home town. Continue Reading →

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Dazzled by the Undoable

the noobzHello. My name is Ronnie and this is the story of how I failed to draw a comic. Throughout this process, I tried to illustrate various colours, shapes, and lines. What I ended up illustrating is a trio of clichés: those who can’t do teach; it’s harder to make than to criticise; and scholars tend to be somewhat divorced from their research topics. Please, make yourself comfortable and watch a grown man drown before your eyes.

I sometimes get to work as a comics critic, which I love: it’s Chris Ware who said that comics is the only art form where you have to explain the medium’s history before addressing a single one, so I often get to editorialise and soapbox and opine before digging into the comic at hand—usually a big no. Meanwhile, my doctoral thesis, which I spent four years of my life writing, was basically an attempt to redefine comics as an art of space, rather than an art of time. It was the kind of supernerdy, fine-grained study that only its author could love, but one detail is germane here: I don’t believe my own argument; it’s an opening gambit, a bargaining position, a thesissy point of departure, one that allowed me to get into the guts of why comics is uniquely itself. Comics’ engagement with space and time, how it messes them both up, is different to the dimensional engagement of any other narrative form. Continue Reading →

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Dear Reader

the noobzAt this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, I gave away my most-loved books along with individual handwritten letters addressed to the reader of each. In a quiet corner of Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent, I displayed the books on a desk and over the course of two days sat down with thirty participants to chat about books and reading, before gifting them a book and a letter to keep. I called it the Dear Reader Project.

I am a passionate reader. I’ve completed an Honours degree in literature, managed a bookshop, and trained as an editor. That is, I’ve had three terrific, tax-deductible reasons to indulge my book-buying habit. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the weight of books that surrounds me. I’ve started to wonder about the specific function of books as cultural objects. What is their psychic measure? What do they act as receptacles for? I’ve closely followed and participated in conversations around the death of the book; a conversation that manages to bore and fascinate in equal parts.

I became interested in how we might begin to enact our conversation about books in new ways. In today’s arts climate, numbers mean a lot. Festival organisers silently count their attendees, hoping for increases that will bolster their funding applications. Online, page views and reach stats serve as a similar metric. It’s a logic that Twitter formally encodes: the screen is fed and made active by the exponential growth of ideas.

But despite Twitter and despite festivals, I am lonely as a reader. With Dear Reader I saw an opportunity to investigate literary experiences and attitudes to reading beyond the panel, magazine or interface. One of the most interesting challenges festivals face is the question of how to activate the energy audience members bring with them to an event. What Dear Reader offered was meaningful conversation between passionate readers.

Over the weekend I met and spoke to thirty people. Those numbers at a panel event would be modest, but I had hopes that my installation would offer a depth of engagement and exchange that counted for much more. When I pitched Dear Reader to the festival, I was putting forward a project that was small, intimate, private and entirely offline. As such, it can’t help but be read in juxtaposition to the rhetoric of growth outlined above, and as a counterweight to the question of technology. In this essay, I’m writing towards these two things. Continue Reading →

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The Reading Challenge

the noobzA year ago, in Overland online literary journal, Jane Gleeson-White wrote that 2012 was the Year of Australian Women Writers. She attributed this in part to a reading and reviewing challenge I’d established, along with the newly-created Stella Prize. A year before that, I’d never heard of Gleeson-White, or many other Australian women writers. Nor was I alone. When I’d visited my local library and asked for recommendations of books by Australian women, neither of the two library workers I approached could name one living, female Australian author. I was told to ‘look for the kangaroo on the spine’.

What the…?

In October 2011, a writer friend on Facebook urged me to check out a ‘stoush’ in the comments section of Tara Moss’s blog. In a wrap-up of a Melbourne Sisters in Crime conference, Moss had quoted the US-based VIDA count: statistics detailing the poor number of reviews of books by women appearing in prominent literary journals. The post attracted the attention of literary reviewer for The Age, Cameron Woodhead, who accused Moss of ‘privileged whining’.

Sure, gender bias in literary reviewing can seem like a First World Problem. But what does it mean when three women in a library have trouble naming any Australian women authors – their contemporaries? It got me thinking. Could the lack of attention given to women writers be symptomatic of a deeper malaise, an inequality which, in Australia, sees women still as primary victims of violence, earning significantly less than men, and underrepresented on corporate boards and, most recently, in ministerial cabinets? Is it an issue of social justice? Or are books by Australian women simply not good enough to deserve reviewers’ attention?

I had good reason to be suspicious of notions of literary meritocracy. Continue Reading →

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Cn u rd ths?

the noobzPlenty of people would describe what I do as journalism, but I’m going to come clean: I ain’t no journalist. This isn’t coming from some deep, dark reservoir of low self-esteem; it’s just I have never completed a journalism degree, never worked in a newsroom and am usually out to sea when one of my editors queries me on legal aspects of my story. ‘Asking me probably isn’t the best idea,’ I’ll tell them, slowly going grey. ‘And, uh, you guys have lawyers, right?’ Some of the stories I write for magazines—like Good Weekend and The Monthly—are definitely a kind of journalism (I come up with an idea, get on the road, interview people, do background research and spin it into a story) but I feel like a fraud when people describe me as a journalist, which happens often enough.

At university, I studied creative writing. (I know: I’m instinctively wary of any professional qualification with the word ‘creative’ in the title too.) When I started the degree in 2000, the course was almost brand new. My cohort of fewer than 30 students was the third batch to enrol. Being a three year course, this meant not a single person had graduated from the degree yet. We were all a grand experiment, with no idea of what career prospects lay ahead of us, if any. For a long time, we referred to our major as Creative Shiting—a joke I reckon has aged pretty well—and while our course coordinators spun out plenty of original content, we also piggy-backed heavily onto media studies and journalism subjects. As part of our course, we were required to complete three mandatory journalism units: news writing; sub-editing and layout; and feature writing. As a writer with aspirations to work for Rolling Stone, I totally dug the classes. (My fiction-writing buddies loathed them.)

I learned plenty in those journalism units: the inverted pyramid structure; how to properly spell ‘villain’; the difference between a lede and an intro; the importance of reading the daily news; how to use programs like Quark and InDesign; how to pitch a feature; the importance of leading and kerning on the page; and how to deal with fuckwit former newspaper section editors who’d found themselves tutoring newswriting to teenagers at university, and therefore had a major chip on their shoulder. However, we also missed out on a lot of key skills that were considered prerequisites for journalists a generation or two ago. And one of them was shorthand. Continue Reading →

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So you thought you were going to make an ebook

the noobzAs I write this continuation to my April essay on my hopes of turning my book Dear Writer into an ebook, I have just received an email from the publisher Spineless Wonders telling me that the book can now be downloaded as an interactive PDF and will shortly be available as an ebook. Not only that, but it will be available in paperback in October 2013.

Clearly a lot of things have happened since April when I wrote: ‘so I think I am going to make an ebook.’ I also wrote that I was ‘working on the revision’ of the text. And at the beginning of my April essay I said: ‘I am learning to make an ebook.’

In my case, what I learned was that I needed to hand over the making of the ebook to Spineless Wonders.

Dear Reader, it happened thus:

Continue Reading →

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A Niche in the Click Economy

the noobzFirst let me tell you how I got the job, as it’s indicative of a new way of doing things.

I’d been freelancing in the book world for over a decade. After presenting a book show for ABC TV and then for Foxtel, I’d been writing author profiles for papers and hosting live events at festivals. As founding editor of Good Reading, I helped create the template for the magazine (creating sections for reader reviews, bookclubs etc.) and set the tone for it as a popular monthly that made no distinction between literary and popular fiction, something I feel strongly about.

I’ve long believed that one mistake traditional media (especially print and radio) made was to segment readers along lines that were obsessed with category demarcations – the publishing equivalent of the class system. You never saw much popular fiction in the former broadsheet book pages, and you never saw so-called literary fiction much in the then tabloids. The approach to book reviewing in conventional media left a lot of people feeling excluded from the conversation. The web has changed all that.

Following the GFC, freelancing had become a much more tenuous proposition with a lot of my regular client publications cutting their space and their contributor budgets. I started to diversify online, blogging for arts companies about the rehearsal process and contributing to sites like The Hoopla, enjoying the immediacy of the feedback.

For months I had been ignoring Linked In invitations. I had no interest in networking and didn’t really understand the site’s use. But when a successful freelance colleague pointed out that I was making a mistake and should at least post my CV on the site, I deferred to her wisdom and did so, spending an hour pulling together my qualifications as an editor, journalist, producer and presenter. That was on a Saturday afternoon.

On the following Monday morning, I got an email from the CEO of Booktopia (at that point I was only dimly aware of the company), Tony Nash, saying ‘I think there might be a synergy between what you do and what we do. Would you like to come and have a chat?’

A week later he offered me a job that was tailor-made to my love of reading, sharing that enthusiasm with others and my desire to work from home. It was never advertised. Continue Reading →

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To Sleep No More (Perchance To Write)

the noobzOne of the best things about being a full-time writer is setting the rules anyway you like. I’m my own boss and I don’t have to worry about co-workers, so in my office there are no fixed hours or dress codes. I could work upside-down in a swing, if I wanted, without fear of occupational health and safety regulations. And so on and so forth.

What happens when you take that freedom away? Would I undergo some kind of creative meltdown or would I adapt and find a way to work regardless?

The matter of who could set the rules instead is a critical one. After fifteen years of self-direction, not even my wife (who I respect absolutely) can stop me from working every day. Holidays are for people who don’t love their job. Is there anyone out there with sufficient authority that I would obey them without question?

There’s only one possible answer, and that’s Science. So between the 9th and 16th of February, 2013, I was one of four artists locked in the Central Queensland University’s Sleep Research Centre (part of the Appleton Institute in Adelaide) to study the impact on creativity of disrupted sleep patterns, loss of subjective control, and constant surveillance. Dubbed The Subjects by the Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT), the experiment, possibly the first of its kind in the world, put me, Thom Buchanan, Jennifer Mills and Fee Plumley in an environment with no clocks, no windows, and no light or temperatures cues and kept us under constant surveillance1. Our sleep, meals, test batteries, and work periods were unpredictable and completely beyond our control. The plan was to turn the tables on our usual creative processes on several fronts at once. We would attempt to produce quality work regardless.

The experiences of my fellow Subjects are recorded on a blog maintained by ANAT , as are mine in their rawest possible form. What follows is a more measured account—written at some clarifying distance—of all that happened to me during that fateful week, when I was told what to do and when to do it, with no option to say ‘no’.

 

*

 

Sean Williams by Fee Plumley

Let me set the scene. Continue Reading →


  1. Except for visits to the bathroom, thank goodness. 

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Two Indie Adventures

the noobz‘Indie’ is the current buzzword for ‘self-publishing’.1 Borrowed from music, the term sprinkles the stardust of rebel cool over what used to be regarded as second-rate—preferable to the ‘vanity’ publishers but only marginally so. Real authors went to real publishers.  Even the example of famous self-published authors, ranging from Matthew Reilly to Fyodor Dostoyevsky (whose wife Anna wrote a fascinating account of their ‘indie’ venture), and the efforts of pioneering self-publishing service specialists like Wild and Wooley didn’t shift the whiff of failure that arose when you mentioned the phrase ‘self-published’, at least in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first (the nineteenth century being rather more free-wheeling in this respect). Established authors might well have wistfully dreamed of indie freedom and experimentation, but everyone knew you couldn’t go through with it—that is, not unless you were washed-up and on the ropes and no other publisher, not even a teeny-tiny one, would take you on any more. Besides, it was a severe strain on the wallet: printing was prohibitively expensive, economies of scale meant you had to go for larger print runs than you needed, leaving all too many hopefuls with boxes of unsold books gathering dust in their garage. And even when it became possible to ‘publish’ on the Web, until the advent of easily-produced e-books, electronic publishing was simply seen as an inferior and impractical medium for book-length works.

How things have changed! Not only have attitudes changed spectacularly, but options have grown. And it’s not just about e-publishing either; the revolution in printing has meant that costs for short-run print books have come down massively too, leading not only to more indie authors, but also to a proliferation of small and tiny presses, often run by partnerships of creators themselves.

Very strictly speaking, I’m not a total n00b at indie publishing. Like many authors, I’d experienced an embryonic version of self-publishing as a child, creating illustrated books into which I laboriously and proudly inserted ‘publication’ details. Most of these books I produced on my own, but occasionally jointly with one of my sisters, who was better at drawing than me, just as I was better at writing stories. My readership was family and friends and, especially in the family market, I didn’t always get good reviews, with kid sisters and brothers delighting in picking holes in my work—sometimes literally—and parents scoffing at narrative inconsistencies (this in the days before uncritical self-esteem became every kid’s birthright). You can say it functioned as a kind of rough and ready editing and market research for the next time.

Very strictly speaking, I’m not a total n00b at indie publishing. Like many authors, I’d experienced an embryonic version of self-publishing as a child, creating illustrated books into which I laboriously and proudly inserted ‘publication’ details.

Time moved on. I became a ‘real’ published author, and then a much-published established author, with many books to my name and an international readership. The idea of self-publishing had been left behind as a memory of childhood: fun to remember, but impossible to go back to. I’d been aware for some time that quite a few established authors had been experimenting with the indie way, but it wasn’t until about eighteen months ago that I started seriously investigating the possibilities of it for myself. Not because I’d run out of puff with the companies referred to these days by some as ‘legacy publishers’; quite the opposite, in fact, I’ve never been so busy with new book contracts. And it wasn’t because I did not like working with ‘legacy publishers’—again, quite the opposite; I’ve always very much appreciated my publishers. It was for two reasons. Continue Reading →


  1. Relax, I’m not about to launch into Indiana Jones fan-fic (at which, admittedly, I’d be even more of a N00b than the actual subject of my piece!). 

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