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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Letter from the Committee

Vlaho Bukovac http:/;

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

Thanks and regards,

Christopher Johnstone

On behalf of the MRB Committee.


Alternative history: Keeve Process


We owe the illegal Keeve Process to neuropsychopharmacological research conducted in the 2010s. The Keeve Process fuses the hemispheres of the brain by filling the fissure between them with a haphazard network of artificial fibres and drug-producing glands. After recovering, many patients experience improved concentration and greater conscious control over their mental processes. However, others suffer irreparable damage to the prefrontal cortex that can cause a variety of neuropsychological problems.

In 2036, a Eurasian research committee undertook an extensive study of fourteen patients who underwent the Keeve Process between 2020 and 2025. They found that eleven now appeared to suffer from degrees of schizophrenic ideation: Continue reading

Closing Statement in the Court Martial of Sergent Kist


If you from here must damn what I did there,
You too would’ve faltered on that tower,
Beneath the wreath of that thousand-yard stare.
Will you measure the sins of one hour
Against ten years of duty served with care?
A day’s courage to a second’s error
One minute foul against four fortnights fair

Have care
Then, my judges, when you pass your sentence,
If you would light the truth ‘neath this affair,
That you judge the crimes not their repentance.
Do you think fear drove me away from there?
Rendered still a loyalty whose currents
Carried my soul through ten years of warfare?
Then you condense my disobedience. Continue reading

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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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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Alternative history: Ilia Tare


Born in Golem, Albania in 1961, Tare studied astrophysics under the tutelage of Adam Kola at the University of Tirana.

In 1981, using the pseudonym ‘Orion Mala’, he began writing articles for the underground periodical Lëndë e Djegshme in which he argued that Leninism had debased the original aims of socialism. Continue reading

Found Stories: Dear Esther


In my earlier discussion on Found Stories, I mentioned three interactive stories that I wanted to examine. This first of these, Ruins, is the oldest and perhaps the simplest in terms of approach. Dear Esther is more recent and takes the form of a dimensional first person, um, well, not a ‘shooter’ as there is no shooting… a first person wanderer? The story begins on a dock at the shores of a deserted island, probably somewhere in the Outer Hebrides or maybe an outlying island of the Orkneys. Without knowing anything about this ‘game’ it would be easy to think that there will be monsters or ghosts or something that will need violent dealing to, but there is not. There is a mystery… but it is not an extrinsic mystery. This is where things get interesting.

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I think you can make an omelet in the dryer. Crack the eggs into a zip-lock bag, wrap it in a pair of pants and run them through on high for an hour. I know it will work.

Colin would never let me try it when we lived together. He acknowledged it might work, but felt that the reward couldn’t justify the risk. Continue reading

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