Best Australian Stories 2016 - Introduction
In 2016 I was the editor of the annual Best Australian Stories anthology, published by Black Inc. Here's my introduction to that collection.
LIKE MANY WRITERS, I keep a collection of talismanic, consoling or provocative quotations from other artists close to hand. Lately these seem to be coming from painters more than writers – like the American abstractionist Laurie Fendrich, who says the notion that abstraction is always about self-expression is both romantic and narcissistic. Abstraction can also be about ideas, she says: ‘The complex struggle between order and chaos, for example, or how the flux of the organic world modifies the rigor of geometry.’
Something else Fendrich wrote struck me with great force: ‘Ever since the invention of painting on canvas, paint itself has been part of the meaning of a painting.’ She was lamenting the pressure on young painters to offer explanations about the inten- tions behind their work, sometimes even before they had made it. But meaning comes, Fendrich asserts, not just from the artist’s internal process, but from the actual application of the paint.
For me, this concept may also offer the best explanation for what gives life to a piece of writing: meaning is generated in the application of language itself, rather than purely from the writer’s desires or intentions. While I believe this truth is present in any writing that pulses with brightness and energy, no matter how inexperienced the writer, perhaps the mature artist is best placed to articulate it.
The novelist Lloyd Jones, for example, has often quoted Samuel Beckett saying of James Joyce that the latter’s writing ‘is not about something, it is that something itself’. When I asked Jones to elaborate in a Writer’s Room interview, he said:
Yes. He’s not writing about something – ‘about’ suggests an object. In other words, it thrusts you into the task of describ- ing something that’s already there. But the something is emerging from the actual writing. So it’s not starting with any objective in mind, but an objective actually results from the act of writing. It’s a subtle distinction.
Michelle Orange also expresses this distinction in the New Yorker when she says, in relation to Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, ‘Gornick’s voice . . . does not just tell the story, it is the story.’
The paint itself is part of the painting’s meaning; the words do not merely tell, but are the story. I think an acceptance of this might result in what novelist Amanda Lohrey says she demands of any book: the presence of ‘messages from another realm’.
‘There’s the literal surface of life,’ Lohrey told me, ‘and then there’s that oceanic meaning underneath . . . any narrative that doesn’t have a few messages from that realm is, for me, deficient. Too mastered, too known, too literal.’
I’ve slowly come to realise that, for me, this sense of meaning arising from the words as they are placed, this ‘message from another realm’ that arrives in the act of writing, is what distin- guishes art from mere storytelling. And at the end of the selection process for this anthology, I can see that it’s this sense more than anything else that has guided my choice of stories. (The title of this collection, by the way, must surely be a headache for every editor. The idea that one could choose the ‘best’ twenty from the hundreds of submitted stories – or even that there’s such a thing as ‘best’ in the first place – feels nonsensical to me.)
If anything unifies the stories in this collection, it might be my own preoccupation, which emerged as I read, with what I came to think of as the trio of ghosts, monsters and visitations.
The presence of these in some stories will be clear from the outset, as in Paddy O’Reilly’s magnificent ‘Monster Diary’. Or they might be buried a little deeper, rising up, say, from the ominous line of graffiti in Kate Ryan’s ‘Where Her Sisters Live’, or from the sudden clarifying mirror-glimpse of the narrator and her friends offered in Tegan Bennett Daylight’s ‘Animals of the Savannah’. Other visitations – perhaps benign, perhaps monstrous – come from the natural world, in stories by Gregory Day, Ellen van Neerven, Michelle Wright and Fiona McFarlane.
Sometimes they come from the inner self, such as the hovering spectre of suicide for Elizabeth Harrower’s protagonist, or death’s aftermath in the stories by Trevor Shearston, Georgia Blain and David Brooks. In these – and Nasrin Mahoutchi’s ‘Standing in the Cold’ – the space between the living and the dead is never straightforward, and never quite breached.
Some threats are delivered from the realist realm of looming economic and class despair, as in the stories of Jack Latimore and Jennifer Down, or they might come from the future, as they do in the ‘glimpse [of] the possibility of other lives, as yet unknown’ in James Bradley’s and Elizabeth Tan’s poetic speculative visions.
Another aura, or sense of mystery, is created by formal experimentation and semantic playfulness – the paint itself being part of the meaning – in the pieces from Brian Castro, Julie Koh and Michael McGirr. Finally, there is the simple, yet hard-won, joy of acceptance in Abigail Ulman’s story, when a mother learns that attachment to one child can only come from allowing another to become a ghost.
Every editor of this collection has faced the inevitable agony of choice and omission, and I was sorry not to be able to include at least another five, if not ten, stories I very much admired. I hope you enjoy the pieces I have chosen, and the ways they continue to echo within and speak to one another.