Monday, 10 March 2014

Writers Week: Sunday 9 March 2014

Session: Reviewing the Reviewer
Terry Castle joins fellow critic Harry Ricketts for an hour of compelling conversation.
The first book Terry Castle reviewed was The Sea by Iris Murdoch for a student magazine.  Castle was a Murdoch junkie.  She read 22 of Murdoch’s novels in a row and named her cat after the author.  Castle recalls attending a reading of Murdoch’s in the States where Murdoch wore a sack-like dress which one of Castle’s contemporaries pulled up at the shoulders and asked if she’d like to remove her coat.  Castle said that while she can have fun with a writer’s eccentricities, and Murdoch had plenty, her main reviewing focus is to show her appreciation for the work, to be humble, and to share her passion for the work with readers.

These sound like good guiding principles for reviewing and her comments have made me think about my reviewing, given that I’m analysing New Zealand books in what is a small writing community where I’m likely to bump into the writers I read around town.  While I want to encourage people to read and buy New Zealand books, I don’t want to be an indiscriminate cheerleader who yahoos anything, or who is seen to favour one publishing house or another.  One way to negate all of these factors is to treat the reviewing process like a workshop.  I say what I like about the writing, I try to see what the writer’s intentions are and appreciate where they’re coming from, but I also show what I don’t understand.   Treating reviewing like a workshop allows me to comment constructively about writing and follow Castle’s aim of appreciation.
Harry Ricketts, the chair of the session for the NZ Writers Festival, asked Castle about the value of reviewing, and whether in this technological age there is space for the long essay review, to which Castle replied that there can’t be too many vehicles for reviewing.  She said that academic criticism was deadly boring, and that her own writing style met with resistance in academia because I assume it didn’t stick to the ‘rules’.  I find this fascinating, given that I am in the middle of a PhD in which my critical section investigates some New Zealand novelists.  I find myself asking whether anyone will drag my finalised thesis off the shelf and actually read my analysis aside from my supervisors and external examiners.  I write about NZ books because I want people to feel as enthusiastic as I do about them and my PhD is no exception, but the academic language of my thesis will ensure the audience will be small.  I guess my aim is to write with academic rigour which is also palatable to a wider audience.

Castle released a memoir in essay form in 2011 called The Professor – she read a portion at the session that detailed her sexual awakening.  It was funny, accessible, descriptive and if Ricketts had allowed her a little more time, was about to get a bit rude.  Here is a review of The Professor by Elaine Showalter:
As a reader Castle has been drawn to memoir by a curiosity to know what other people are like.  Biographies were a life line to Castle when she was a solitary child because they showed her how to be human.  Castle also believes that they inspire the reader to create their own story, to compare their life to the one they are reading about, and ultimately help us ‘read’ ourselves.  Fiction, and writing in general, also shows us how to live, how other people function which Castle believes is survivalist mechanism – we read so we can suss other people out and therefore learn to survive in society.

Session: Scenes of Secrets and Disguises
Five actors read scenes from Arts Foundation Damien Wilkin’s seventh novel, Max Gate

Overheard while waiting for the session to begin:

“Is Damien going to be here?”
“I hope so.”

Indeed, Damien was there to introduce his novel and the actors who were going to read scenes from it.  He pointed out that the chosen scenes from the book show the juxtaposition between the decorum and recklessness, between confinement and freedom by those living at Max Gate while Thomas Hardy was dying.  A division I didn’t see fully when I was reviewing the book. 
I thoroughly enjoyed Wilkins’s novel and the read-through was no exception.  No changes had been made to the script – sections were lifted from the page to the stage.  Florence, Alice and Nellie were accompanied by the young reporter and Alex, and Mr Cockerill.
I was fascinated by the dress of the actor Carmel McGlone who played Florence.   She wore a black skirt, over which was a black lace slip and over that another skirt.  I think this represented the layers of Florence’s character – her inability to emotionally connect with others at the same time that we see her extreme emotional distress; she cannot give or receive comfort.  When I read the book I don’t think I had fully grasped this element, but the visual depiction of it in Florence’s frock has helped cement it in my mind.

Thomas Hardy enjoyed the adaptations of his work, and to extend the idea to Wilkins’s work seemed entirely appropriate, and like any re-reading brings out the themes and reinforces the pleasure of the work.

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