About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne

Literary and Genre and the Shadowlands Between

Jovellanos :: Goya


What is the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction? Are these sundered and foreign countries, or do they share a common border? If they do have uncertain geographies, debated borders, hesitant small zones of hashed-out landmass, belonging to neither and both, then where is this shadowed half-place? How do we know when we have crossed from one land into the other?

Genre is often defined as anything that isn’t literary, encompassing among other things Romance, Crime, Fantasy and Science Fiction. But this is unhelpful unless we can define what we mean by literary fiction without resorting to an endless circular tautology. And therein is the rub. ‘Literary fiction’ as a term isn’t itself a very useful one. ‘Mainstream’ or ‘general’ fiction are perhaps better at capturing the bookshop shelf that is often named ‘Literature’, although it is debatable whether bookshop shelving tells us much past which titles tend to sell better when shelved beside which other titles.

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And Thus Did the Dragon Cometh

The Dragon Slayer :: Franz von Stuck

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, Some Thoughts on Narrative in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989, p. 44

I have been reading Le Guin again, and it is always a heady experience. Her stories and her essays are mazes of thought that can lead to unexpected places. In particular, I want to jot down some of my own thoughts after reading the short essay, Some Thoughts on Narrative, in the 1989 collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World.

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Always Celebrate Your Birthday

gratitudeGratitude is the last work we shall have from Oliver Sacks. It comprises four essays that were published in the closing years and months of his life. The first essay, Mercury, was written and published before Oliver Sacks discovered that he had a rare and difficult to treat form of melanoma. It celebrates old age, and the essay feels, in its way, soberly upbeat. It is an essay steeped in the love of living. Within its words reside the glimmering promise of good health and happiness for at least a few years to come. And yet there is a tension that Oliver Sacks never intended. As the reader, we know more than he did when writing it. We know that he will not live out the decade. We know that his body was already secretly betraying him to cancerous cells, even as he wrote about the joys of good health in old age.

The subsequent three essays were written after the cancer diagnosis, and they are, as such, reflective on what it means to reach life’s end. But that said, all of these four essays are, none of them, depressing works. Oliver Sacks was always in his writing, a believer; a believer in human capacity to cope with strange twists of neurological fate; a believer in the ultimate goodness of human nature; a believer in others; a believer in himself. I don’t doubt that a person cannot always and constantly believe in the fundamental goodness of life: but I have to wonder if Oliver Sacks came as close as might be humanly possible? His written words seem so irrepressibly positive. And all this despite the fact that Sacks clearly found himself in times and places during his life where the evidence was stacked against there being any sort of fundamental goodness underlying our human existence.

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Letter from the Committee

Vlaho Bukovac http:/www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com;

Vlaho Bukovac

I’m writing on behalf of The Melbourne Review of Books committee. We’ve recently become aware of an online discussion criticising the content of several of our reviews. First, we need to apologise for our delayed response. We are a volunteer committee, and were unaware of the conversation until recently. Second, we wish to apologise and take responsibility for the anger and frustration that we have caused.

There have been several criticisms of The Melbourne Review of Books, as provoked by a recent review of a new Australian young adult work, Clancy of the Undertow. In reading the discussion–in particular the comments on this site and the twitter threads associated with Margo Lanagan and Ellie Marney–we have identified three primary points:

  1. The MRB is indulging in the same literary elitism and ‘gate-keeperism’ as is frequently seen in literary review titles. In the specific instance that triggered the discussion, this relates to a generalised dismissal of young adult readers and writers.
  2. A lack in the quality of writing of MRB reviews, along with a lack of structural critique, and poor editing of the reviews. This represents a failure to meet standards expected of a publication that supposes itself to be providing thoughtful and articulate reviews.
  3. A lack of self-awareness and self-examination that has resulted in language that carries some clearly implicit gender biases.

We think these are valid criticisms. It is sometimes difficult to accept failure, but we think we have clearly failed in this regard. These criticisms run against the grain of our founding intention, which was to provide a place for thoughtful and considered conversations about the love of reading without prejudicing genres or readerships. From here, we need to reflect on how we have failed to meet our own expectations, as well as those of our readers and the broader community.

At this point we wanted to say thank you to everyone who has participated in the conversation. We are listening and we understand why people are upset. If you would like us to publish a response to these issues, we would be very happy to do so. Please feel free to contact us at melbournereviewofbooks@gmail.com.

Thanks and regards,

Christopher Johnstone

On behalf of the MRB Committee.


Well, I Guess That’s Settled Then…

Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It
Daniel Klein
Text Publishing

every_time_i_find_the_meaning_of_life_they_change_itWhat is the meaning of life? It is a question that has haunted drunk teenagers and philosophers since the invention of beer and philosophy respectively. Is there even such a thing as an extrinsic meaning of life? And if the meaning of life is in actuality created, not discovered, then how does one go about carving the good life out of the hard rock of daily routine, with all of its disappointments and trivialities?

Broadly speaking, these are the questions that Daniel Klein orbits around, examining, questioning and mulling over. I say ‘orbits’ intentionally. With subtle humour, wit and skill, Klein circles topics, whilst at the same time holding himself at a distance–not aloof–but perhaps cautious, even suspicious of the clever ideas he examines. This is a curious, interesting approach. It reflects a perspective where Klein, now approaching his ninetieth decade, seems to have decided that the important things in life may have less to do with clever twists of philosophic wit after all, and maybe more to do with afternoons in a lazy sunlit garden with the family dog and one’s own thoughts.

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An Unrelenting Beauty of Words

The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings
Angela Slatter
Tartarus Press

the_bitterwood_bibleOccasionally, when we are all very good, the story-gods are kind to us, and they send a writer whose voice and vision are so deeply felt, so confident and so intricately imagined, that the whole of their work is a wonderment from end to end. I experienced that electric wonder-shock to the senses on first reading Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners (for example), or Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (which I read before reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for reasons that made sense at the time, but are now forgotten). And now, I find myself experiencing the feeling of wonder-shock anew. The author is Angela Slatter and the work, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. This collection of interwoven short-stories really is that good. I think even if I had only been allowed one page of this short story collection to use as the basis for my whole review, I’d still be recommending Angela Slatter unreservedly. The prose jumps off the page the way prose does when the person responsible is a master at their craft. Sometimes, you don’t need more than a sentence or two. Sometimes, you can just tell. But as it was, I had the luxury to be drawn in, and to step my way through all the tales within. And what tales they are.

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Rumination on the Echoes of Art and Life and Memory

The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch (20th Anniversary Edition)
Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Dave McKean
Nov 2015, $29.99

mr_punchThe early Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean graphic novel, The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of  Mr. Punch, is one of those pieces of work that I’d never quite got around to reading. Both Gaiman and McKean are prolific in their works, and given their large bodies of work, there will almost certainly be the odd story that slips a reader by. Mr. Punch would be one such story for me. We are, however, at the 20th Anniversary of Mr. Punch, and Bloomsbury have brought out a lovingly remastered edition to celebrate. This seems as good a time as any to acquaint oneself with the graphic novel in question.

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“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar

Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll, Illustrated by Rébecca Dautremer
Dec 2015, RRP $29.99

alice_in_wonderland_dautremerEnglish speaking readers might not be familiar with Rébecca Dautremer. It might be informative to think of her as a sort of French Shaun Tan. On the other hand, it might be just as true to say that Shaun Tan is an Australian Rébecca Dautremer. It all depends on one’s perspective. Rébecca Dautremer is the illustrator of over forty children’s books, many of which have never been translated for Anglophones. Her illustrations are gentle, thoughtful and brimming with a charm and surreal beauty that renders each page into something that touches upon the ethereal.

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And you thought you were going to be productive today…

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.37.12 PM

If you have not yet had a play around with Google Ngram Viewer, then prepare to put aside an hour, two, or, heck, maybe most of an afternoon. Google Ngram Viewer lets you look at trends for word use across all of the Google digitised library of books from 1800 to 2008. The default that came up when I landed on the page was Frankenstien, Albert Einstein and Sherlock Holmes, cutting off at 2000 (image above).

So, let’s have a play around.

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For the Birdo in Your Life

Ralph Steadman (illustrator), Ceri Levy (commentary)
Aug 2015, RRP $69.99

nextinctionNextinction is one of those tricky books to pin down in a review. This mixed up, vibrant and colourful tome is part art book, part coffee table extravaganza, part humour, part social commentary and part call to environmental action. It is an ambitious follow-up act to the successful, similarly veined collaboration Extinct Boids.

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Literature, Empathy and the Landscape of Quandary


I have only recently become aware of the writer and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. If you aren’t aware of her thoughts on the moral importance of stories, art and literature, you can start by listening to her speak on some older episodes of ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone. As it happens, Nussbaum ranges over a wide swathe of philosophy, though frequently comes back to an orbit around ethics and the idea of cosmopolitan or global morality: that is, how to be moral with regard to everyone, not just within your own tribe, country, religion, friends, family or even species.

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