Sunday, February 26, 2006

Pusillanimous

When I was in high-school, one of my classmates received some feedback on an assignment from our English teacher to the effect that he should use fewer large words in his writing. He was astounded. All of his efforts to construct sophisticated, erudite sentences with which to impress the teacher had not been recognised. Worse, his advanced vocabulary seemed to have had the opposite effect, it had attracted negative criticism. Of course, me and others were outraged on our classmate’s behalf. Surely the point of an English assignment was to employ the extent of one’s vocabulary? At the time, the criticism seemed ridiculous, purposefully designed to discourage our learning. Now that I have marked assignments myself, I can finally appreciate what the teacher had been trying to say, the good writing practice that she had been trying to instil in her students, the level-headed encouragement, which in fact was much more her way. I have read essays, where it is clear that the student is intelligent and has done good research, but their expression is congested or ungainly. Congested in the sense that too many ideas are crammed into each sentence, and ungainly in the way a new foal has legs but hasn’t worked out how to use them.

When I’ve read students’ essays, I’ve never had much hesitation in determining what is congested or ungainly. It’s only when I’m reading writing that has been published after going through a rigorous editorial process that I feel far less certain about categorically stating a negative opinion. I suppose much of the certainty I have about my reading of students’ essays arises from the conviction that I’m a more advanced reader and writer than my students, an assumption, I concede, that might not always be true. Another key indicator of an essay I would describe as ‘bad’ is one that I simply can’t comprehend because it doesn’t comply at all with any known rules of English grammar. When I read writing that is not self-published, I suppose I assume that it must be ‘good’ writing according to some credible measure.

The question of what prompts anyone to declare writing either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a constant one for me. Most recently I have thought about this issue when reading the blog, Intersecting Lines. Its authors are very clear about what writing they like and that which they dislike. In their judgement of literature reviewers and critics, Clive James is a good writer, and Peter Craven is not. The contributors to Intersecting Lines reveal no doubts about the truth of their individual viewpoints, which seem to concur. I am not sure whether to admire such certainty, but I am definitely perplexed by it. I wonder how they arrive at their judgements. Do they ever question, within themselves, the criteria on which they premise their conclusions?

One criterion that seems to lead to a dismissal of any writer by Intersecting Lines is word choice, specifically the choice of long words when, in the blog writers’ estimation, a shorter one will do. A recent posting on Peter Craven especially prompted my thinking on the matter of word choice. Here’s an excerpt:

Now the first thing about Peter Craven (that's me) that you (the reader) are going to have to remember is that I'm really smart. Like, phenomenally smart. I'm so smart that whole cities have to be evacuated when I have a thought, because of the movement of my stupendously large brain-cells. This means that from time to time, I throw in a few big words into my review. It's obvious, really: big words for big thoughts. So here's how my review starts.

"Taken as a whole, Peter Craven's work is truly, astonishingly, omnipotently pure."


Part of my thought process was a reflection on one of my own posts about a recent column by Peter Craven on the subject of television drama. Regular readers may recall that I didn’t agree with Craven’s views, but I couldn’t argue with his command of the English language, in fact I enjoyed it. I share the authors of Intersecting Lines view that Peter Craven’s reviews have a superior tone, and since I wrote my Honour’s thesis on Australian ‘grunge’ literature, I’m all too aware of his propensity to dismiss writers and their novels out of hand, according to some Weekly Bulletin-esque sensibility, but I wonder if the problems of his tone and his opinions are reducible to using big words.

Another memory, this time from primary school. Mr E, who had a lump on his leg that was later surgically removed, came and sat at the desk next to mine during a period when each member of the class was working individually. He engaged me in conversation while at the same time he read from a dictionary. I asked him about the dictionary and he said he often read it, randomly, hoping to discover new words. My ten-year old mind was impressed with the idea and I decided, then and there, it was a habit I would also practice. It was in this way that I found ‘pusillanimous’, a word that was impressively big and able to be used as a kind of code word; a word you could use confidently amongst your closest friends to the bewilderment of others. But, how to use it in a sentence? Perhaps, ‘The pusillanimous critic’s opinions were held in little regard.’? Or would it be less elite, and therefore better, to write, ‘The craven critic’s opinions were not shared by many others.’? Or better still, since it’s alliterative, ‘The lily-livered critic’s opinions were readily lampooned.’?

‘Pusillanimous’ is a word that represents to me the constant struggle I wage between the delight in discovery and knowledge and wanting to share that with others, and the need to temper my ego that revels like a glutton in showing off how clever I am. While reading How to Get a PhD, I’ve discovered that I’m a serialist writer, rather than an holistic writer. While the holistic writer, plans the big picture, the serialist revels in the details, unable to move on until each sentence is deemed perfect. I don’t think it’s the most efficient way to write, but it means that I derive great pleasure from searching for the perfect word. The perfect word is not always a big word, but sometimes it is. I have never used ‘pusillanimous’ in a sentence, written or spoken (before today), but I once read it used to good effect in a column by Phillip Adams—surely on something about one of the current government’s policies. I still hold that it might be useful to me one day. I might use it to achieve just the right tone to describe a writer’s work; the sound of it could resonate perfectly with its meaning when the future sentence I write is read aloud. Is there any reason why an advanced vocabulary, handled well, should not be employed by a reviewer of literature or any other writer, who can assume his or her readers have a highly developed vocabulary or at least handy access to a dictionary? Is she not allowed to use the language of her craft when communicating with her peers, just as any other profession must?

Perhaps my questioning of the contributions to Intersecting Lines arises from the fear that my writing may be subject to the same criticism, the same ready dismissal. I think there is truth in that. It would just be awful after working so hard at the difficult task of writing to have that work so—it seems—thoughtlessly discarded, without being afforded due respect for the effort expended. It’s not that I am terribly sorry for Peter Craven, because he is so often guilty of the same thing, even with his eloquent prose, but I do feel for the multitude of other writers that apparently do not make the Intersecting Lines grade either. I am not sure what it takes to make the grade. Even James Joyce is not up to scratch.

I don’t know. I just feel uncomfortable when I read Intersecting Lines.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dust Bunnies

Dogpossum has posted a picture of a rabbit that looks like it might well have been an extra on that episode of The Goodies where they discover the moon is inhabited by over-sized bunnies who are plotting to take over the earth. The only pictures of comparable critters that I can offer are of the dust bunnies that reside under my bed and, as I discovered on Sunday, in a hidden corner of my built-in wardrobe. However, rather than disgust you, and shame myself, by presenting photographic evidence of my poor house-keeping skills, I will offer you some dust bunnies of the metaphorical variety by way of a list of those random thoughts that roll around my head at odd times, and that should probably just be sucked up with a vacuum cleaner and thrown out with the old newspapers. But what is a blog for, if not to act as a place to share a little dirt now and again?

Sunday, 12 February 2006

I went up to the shop just before and bought some eggs. I am down to my last fifteen dollars in the world, so when I saw the two dollar difference in price between the cage eggs and the free range organic variety, I wavered. I picked up the cage eggs and I thought about the terrible conditions that the hens would have endured, then I thought about Jeanette Winterson’s argument for paying higher prices for food. It’s really tough to think about the big picture of food production when your view has been reduced to a pixel by the worry of whether you might not be able to afford milk in a few days. I reasoned that the eggs were going to make me enough muffins to keep me in breakfast beyond the next four days, so from that perspective I could afford them. When I got to the counter, they didn’t scan and the shop assistant entered the price of the cage eggs, $1.95. I didn’t say anything. I refused the offer of a bag, welcoming the distraction from my dishonesty by indicating the fold-up one I had brought with me, and then I left. Now I’m feeling guilty that the small business owner probably couldn’t afford to lose the additional $1.90 I should have paid. It’s tough to think about the big picture of small business when your view has been reduced to a pixel by the worry of whether you might not be able to afford flour in a few days.

Monday, 13 February 2006

Some advice worth following concerns the consumption of muffins for breakfast while watching last night’s recording of the first instalment of David Attenborough’s Life In The Undergrowth. Unless you find slime conducive to stimulating your appetite, watching a velvet worm squirt a cricket with ‘glue’ in order to trap it and eat it will make you feel slightly queasy. Your stomach may also turn on your raspberry oat bran muffin when you see a centipede wrapped around a bat which it caught by dangling from the ceiling of a cave and catching it while it flew past. Does the description of leopard slugs having sex as ‘balletic’ make the presence of all that mucus any more palatable?

Tuesday, 14 February 2006

I have noticed that prolonged periods of intense concentration make me intensely hungry, as if my last meal was the day before, instead of three hours ago. One day at the University I arranged to meet a friend for a late afternoon coffee, but we ended up getting a glass of wine and because my stomach was grumbling, I knew the alcohol would go straight to my head, so we also ordered pizza at 4.30 in the afternoon. I felt a bit shocked at myself and not unlike a piglet, since I had eaten regular meals at regular times throughout the day. Just yesterday, after I ate muffins for breakfast, then a handful of nuts and dried fruit mid-morning, I sat down for lunch and took the first bite of some salmon and potato frittata and I felt my brain dilate in response, seizing on the fuel, again, as if it had been deprived. Having a hyper-appetite is not a good thing at the moment. Those scholarship payments had better kick in on Thursday or I’ll run out of food and my brain will refuse to work. It thinks it’s starving now?

Wednesday, 15 February 2006

I haven’t spoken much about my music preferences on this blog except to note that I’m not very fond of a heavy bass between the hours of 1am and 4am. Once, I didn’t think I could live without music; that was during the period when I was young enough to enjoy Triple J. It was the only time in my life that I’ve ever been a radio listener. But since that time I’ve twice filled out ACNeilsen Radio surveys and never made a single entry in the diary they provided. Without the radio as a guide to new music, I wondered how I would find out about must-listen music, but it wasn’t a question that occupied my interest for very long. I’m mentioning this, because I was given cause to reflect upon my musical tastes a couple of weeks ago when I decided to arrange my CDs into alphabetical order, according to the artist’s name. As I dusted CD covers and arranged alphabetical piles, I became aware that one letter was rapidly forming a tower high above all of the others. At least one quarter of my CDs are by artists whose names begin with B: Ben Harper, Ben Lee, Beth Orton, Billy Bragg, and Björk. What do these musical choices say about me? That I stopped listening to radio about eight years ago and my sister, V. is responsible for my Beth Orton obsession. As a consequence of my rearranging (from chaos to alphabetical) I have rediscovered Björk’s album, Medúlla, which is composed almost entirely of voices. There is a bit of piano on one track. It’s extraordinary. I’m listening to it now. The sounds are helping soothe my sore brain which has not fared well after another night of the mf neighbour’s antics.

Thursday, 16 February 2006

I am starting a campaign calling for an end to the use of the phrases ‘it’s all good’ and ‘at the end of the day’. There is perhaps no point in attempting to halt contemporary vernacular developments; I’m almost certainly sounding like one of those people who have spawned a whole industry by publishing their personal gripes about the evolution of the English language over the past 20 years. (For a broader perspective on the history of English, see Melvyn Bragg’s very excellent The Adventure of English). Anyway. I think what I particularly hate about these two phrases is that they seem to be expressed with the purpose of affecting the states of Zen and sagacity, respectively. Instead, their utterance reveals in the speaker a level of complacency about their own inarticulateness that should not be encouraged. The time of the first Australian Idol seemed to be the height of the ‘It’s all good’ phenomenon. If I heard Guy Sebastian say it one more time, along with ‘Awesome!’, in place of any coherent answer... well, I did scream. And then we had to live through it all over again when Kate D’Arugao was a contestant on the third season. Lately, I’ve noticed the use of ‘It’s all good’ has become less, especially after it started to be appropriated as a slogan in advertisements, but it seems to have been superseded by the equally irritating ‘At the end of the day’. If you use these sayings yourself, I implore you, please do some more reading, through which you will expand your vocabulary and soon have a whole range of new words to employ in your conversations and narratives.

Friday, 17 February 2006

In its quest to see Brisbane become an international city, the City Council seems to have hired the same architect responsible for Melbourne’s controversial Federation Square to design its new offices. In an effort to comply with the Council’s recycling policy, the developers rifled through their garbage and extracted the plans for the Melbourne site, after which they took out their crayons and coloured in a few squares before presenting them to the Council for approval.

In other developments, the mayor of Paris has contacted Interpol to report the desecration of the fountain at the Pompidou Centre. Interpol is investigating reported sightings of pieces from the Centre’s famous sculpture in downtown Brisbane. The owner of the Giant Lobster has also made an enquiry to Queensland police.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part Two


I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. In order to keep myself on task and so finish this 940 page tome, I have enlisted the support that your presence will provide to urge me to continue reading. I will post a record of my progress here at irregular intervals, as well as any comments and questions that are provoked by the text along the way.

II. Of the fortuitous meeting between the author and 400 Windmills, and other delightful discoveries

After all the irritation I expressed about the central characters in my previous post on Don Quixote, I only read another page before I was finally stirred to feel sympathy for Don Quixote, and in a few more chapters I was pleased to see Sancho Panza duly rewarded for his service to the knight errant.

Soon after DQ freed the chained galley slaves, he and Sancho were summarily attacked by the last prisoner he spoke to, Gines de Passamonte. In keeping with his naïve views on the proper conduct of knights errant and well-bred men in general, DQ asked de Passamonte to demonstrate some gratitude for his liberty by travelling to see Dulcinea del Toboso to tell her of the good deed her knight had done in her service. Of course the man refused, citing the threat of recapture if he were to travel on the main road, and of course DQ reacted badly to the refusal and once again started throwing around insults and brandishing his lance. DQ’s response was still a little silly for my liking, but I did feel sorry for him when the street savvy criminal fought back. De Passamonte is described as ‘being far from long-suffering’ and he begins his defence against DQ’s ire by pelting stones him and Sancho, backed up by the other freed prisoners:

All that remained were the ass and Rocinante, Sancho and Don Quixote; the ass pensively hanging his head and shaking his ears now and then, imagining that the storm of stones which had whizzed by his head had not yet ceased; Rocinante prostrate beside his master, for he had also been brought down by a stone; Sancho in his shirt and terrified of the Holy Brotherhood; and Don Quixote much distressed at finding himself so vilely treated by the very men for whom he had done so much.

I can almost see the poor donkey’s ears flopping dolefully, to say nothing of the whole sorry sight of the confused adventurers with clothes torn and their heads bruised and bleeding from where the stones struck them. Things get worse before they get better. Sancho’s donkey is stolen by de Passamonte, who encounters the master and his squire later, when they are asleep, recovering from the attack.

At this point I feared for poor Sancho even more. I thought, ‘not only is Sancho not getting paid for his efforts, but now he’s losing what few assets he does have’. To his credit Don Quixote promises to sign over three of his own asses to Sancho when they return home, but who could be sure given all the emptiness of his other promises? I did cheer when Sancho bemoaned:

In God’s name, Sir Knight of the Sad Countenance, I cannot endure or bear with patience some of the things your worship says. They make me think that all you tell me about chivalries and winning kingdoms and empires, and giving isles and doing other favours and mighty deeds, as knights errant do, must be just wind and lies, and all friction or fiction or whatever you call it. For to hear your worship say what a barber’s basin is Mambrino’s helmet, and persist in that error for more than four days, what can one think? Only that a man who persists in saying a thing like that must be cracked in the brain. I have the basin in the bag, all dented, and I’m taking it home to mend it and to use it for shaving, if God is so gracious as to let me live with my wife and children one day.

Alas, even after this outburst Sancho continues to be drawn into DQs reality, but I felt better that he hadn’t forgotten his family entirely, and not long before this the discovery of an abandoned saddlebag containing a number of gold coins served as a tangible payment for Sancho’s services thus far.

With the frustrations of my initial encounter with Don Quixote at least partly resolved, I’ve finally been enjoying the stories and adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza up to Chapter 31. DQ has been roaming semi-naked in the mountains, unsure of whether to throw himself at the inhospitable terrain or to sit on a rock and weep, all in homage to the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, of course. Meanwhile Sancho has been sent to find said Lady and seek a response to her knight’s sacrifices in her name. Before Sancho makes it to Toboso he runs into the priest and the barber from La Mancha, the same two responsible for desecrating DQ’s library after his first aborted quest. Together they concoct a plan to draw DQ from the mountains and back to La Mancha.

Another part of my new enjoyment of Don Quixote is derived from feeling more relaxed about reading this canonical text. I can attribute this shift to reading the comments on the 400 Windmills blog recommended by Ms Tartan. The comments there have reassured me that I’m not the only one to be daunted by Cervantes’s work and from this I have been inspired in my determination to finish the novel, however slow my progress. (With a more contemporary narrative progressing slowly might result in losing the thread of the plot, but the episodic structure of Don Quixote lends itself to this pace quite well) One contributor to 400 Windmills confessed that just reading the back cover of Don Quixote had him awe-struck. A plethora of literary luminaries are quoted as recommending DQ. Milan Kundera apparently writes, ‘the novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes’. Who wouldn’t feel embarrassed by the lack of civility that not comprehending the worth of so highly praised a novel would reveal? A comment from one of the blog’s readers is also useful on the spectre of Don Quixote. She quotes Vladimir Nabakov who maintained that the character of Don Quixote had been almost extricated from Cervantes’s writing; DQ ‘began to stray from his book almost as soon as he was invented’ by means of what the contributor calls ‘common parlance’—interpretations that rendered DQ a ‘watered-down’, ‘dotty old madman’—so that the novel became a ‘cruel and crude old book’.

Here, I suppose, it isn’t the interpretations by more contemporary authors that have reduced the figure of DQ (quite the opposite), I seem to have managed that all by myself. I’ll admit to feeling a lot like Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites when I read that one reader, after finishing only the preface, was already won over by Cervantes’s use of irony. Clearly I don’t know the meaning of irony, even when I see it.

To return to the earlier reader’s musings on Nabakov’s attempts to reinvigorate Don Quixote by encouraging people to read the novel themselves, I’m encouraged to think that I am beginning to glimpse the ‘richness, complexity, pathos, pain and humour—and violence’ of Don Quixote that she has appreciated.

I was also encouraged to read contributions by readers who had attempted to read DQ more than once. One woman hated DQ ‘intensely’ the first time she was required to read it at age 15, and she hadn’t changed her mind when she used Cliff’s Notes to write an essay on it in college. It took her 17 years to understand why her grandfather re-read it every few years. There are others who abandoned Don Quixote after less protracted relationships with the novel, sometimes simply because they got distracted by another book. I can’t remember why I stopped reading DQ before; I don’t even recall anything about what I did read. I know barely read 50 pages. I’m doing much better this time.

Related Posts
Spanish Inquisition: Part One
Tilting At Windmills

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Saturday

Yesterday’s post was supposed to be a chatty catch-up after almost a week of no entries here, but it ended up being something else. I was buzzing all day after my meeting with GT, and I always get on a kind of high when someone I look up to applauds my work. I don’t think my state of mind is wholly attributable to being praised though; it also arises from being so weirdly focussed. Having almost two years off between degrees has been a very good thing. Everybody I have spoken to about this, whether they’ve taken time off or not in between the Master’s and the PhD themselves, has recommended the value of a break. I didn’t feel up to launching into another thesis straight away anyway, but other people’s advice has shored up the decision, and my sense that I know what needs to be done when approaching such a project has vindicated that decision further. I am so into taking other people’s advice about strategies for completing the PhD right now. Other people’s advice is how I came to the decision not teach in the first year. I have also been quizzing those people who have done Master’s and are now running out of their PhD scholarships, but not within a year of completion. Did they start off as eager and focussed as I feel right now? If so, when did that change? What precipitated it? What are their regrets about their work practices and the decisions they made along the way, and how they affected their progress? What, if anything, do they feel was out of their control, that contributed to the time spent on their Doctorate? I have a friend whose project started out comparing the gay male literatures of two countries and now he is looking at one male writer who may or may not have been gay. And then he had to learn from scratch the whole body of post-colonial theory. I find the story of that experience quite daunting—you just can’t control those kind of changes and challenges in a thesis. It’ scary.

***

In other news, the mf neighbour was served an eviction notice. So, if all goes well he will be out of mine and my other neighbours lives on Tuesday. I hope he leaves without any problem. The property manager expressed this worry to me and so now I’ve been concerned that it won’t be a straightforward matter of him acting on the notice. Some CIB police knocked on the door this morning, wanting to know if I’d heard anything throughout the night. Apparently there had been quite a serious attack in the area over night. I had to tell them I had only heard my downstairs neighbour between 1.00am and 3.00am, and maybe some general conversation from the balcony of one of the houses up the back. I didn’t hear any screaming, just the ongoing vibration of the mf neighbour and other non-specific noises; as the detective said, ‘Just another Friday night on C. Street’. I did get up at around 2.00am and wash the stack of dishes I had left on the sink. I made sure to do them as noisily as possible, but still I didn’t hear any screaming, except in my own head.

***

Again, my post hardly qualifies as an innocuous chatty catch up as I swing from the hyper-stimulation of a new research project to the energy sucking antics of the mf neighbour and other antisocial types. Speaking of which ...

I saw North Country last weekend. I wanted to see it because it reminds us of the abominable behaviours to which sexual harassment policies and legislation were drafted to respond. Especially after the reckless irresponsibility of Helen Garner’s The First Stone in this country, it’s not before time that the detractors of the workplace policy and government legislation take the opportunity to reflect that the events upon which North Country is based only occurred in the early nineties.

Still not chatty, I know. See how easily I launch into a rant?

I saw the last episode of RAN: Remote Area Nurse this week. I’m sad to see it go. I felt all tingly every time I watched it; it was that good. So good.

I watched the new episodes of all the Law & Order franchises. I found SVU a bit tedious because of the underneath-that-police-badge-Elliot-has-the-same-impulses-as-a-sexual-predator story line. It was good to see Robert Patrick making a guest appearance though. Between this and his role as Johnny Cash’s father in Walk the Line, I’m putting in a request to see more of him. I’m looking forward to this season of the original Law & Order series. How thrilled am I to see that Michael Imperioli, Christopher from The Sopranos, is now playing a detective on the series? I really do like Dennis Farina as the other main detective; him and his fancy Italian shoes! Another connection with The Sopranos is present in Criminal Intent. From the previews it looks like Annabelle Sciorra who played Tony’s ‘goomah’ in series three is partnering up with Detective Mike Logan, who is returning to the franchise after Chris Noth had a turn as Mr Big on Sex and the City.

I had to make a tough decision between the second episode of the new series of Lost and the return of Medium on Thursday night. I recorded RAN, and chose Medium reasoning that I could figure out what happened in Lost as it went on. I was glad I chose Medium because it turns out Alison’s husband has started seeing a therapist who has advised him that his wife is ‘profoundly inconsiderate’. Something to reflect on for the thesis—see how all this television watching is research? Plus, how good is Patricia Arquette? She really shouldn’t be missed. Ever.

Of course, Desperate Housewives was ‘must-see’ television. For me Bree is the best character ever, who else would even contemplate, never mind get away with, changing the tie on her dead husband mid-funeral? She is very closely followed by Felicity Huffman’s character for telling her husband that being a mother is like being an ER doctor, there are no days off, even when you are sick yourself. And still she picked up the baby and went off to work with it under her arm, while her husband lay prostrate on the floor.

***
I think I finally made it to chatty, but I better sign off now and leave the flat as quickly as possible before all that changes. Perhaps I’ll find some sanctuary at the cinema away from the ceaseless, Thud! Thud-thud!

Bring on Tuesday. Please?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Keeping You Informed

When I was about half way through my Master’s thesis, I wished that I had kept a diary of the ups and downs of my research project. At the time I remember thinking that recording the trials and tribulations involved might have been quite a useful tool, a way of reflecting upon my methodology among other things. The question of methodology is, of course, always important for any research project, but if I felt that my circumstances were special then it was because the foremost ‘experts’ on zines were the very people who were the subjects of my thesis. Zine publishers, in addition to producing the publications I was researching, were also the principal theorists of their publishing practices. In any other area of research you might have a difference of opinion with another professional researcher, agree to disagree, and then continue researching and writing your project. On the topic of zines if you had a similar struggle over meaning then you risked alienating the very people whose advice you sought. Perhaps it is best that the minutiae of the sometimes vigorous exchanges were not preserved beyond the moment of their first expression, or reflected upon with a potentially more damaging outcome . The problems that this unique researcher-subject relationship raised was, in the end, the focus of an early chapter in my thesis. Beyond my personal experience, the issue had repercussions for the research methodology/ies of work on zines, more broadly. In all the academic work I had read on zines, no-one seemed to explore the nature of the resistance they encountered beyond a brief sentence, usually further delegated to parentheses, and the extent to which it was another expression of a particular individualistic, anti-institutional ideology at the basis of zine production. I suppose then it might have been a good thing that I didn’t vent elsewhere but articulated the issues in a professional manner that ultimately contributed to my thesis and, according to my examiners, the development of methodology in the field.

My discussion of the experience I had researching the Master’s would seem to lead to the conclusion that I should just keep the details of the forthcoming PhD experience to myself. That is probably a very wise conclusion, but at the moment, in the first flush of working on my Doctorate, I think it’s not too unwise a move to record the first giddy experiences of this professional beginning.

It’s been just over a week now since I officially started. I spent the first few days completing paper work and being allocated a room and the various keys, cards and pin numbers that will access the buildings, rooms, and computers you need to in this PhD caper. Then I turned my attention to defining my project. At the moment, it is true to say that I’m motivated by a healthy fear that I’ll repeat the mistakes of my previous degree (ie waste my scholarship; exceed the suggested time by years and years), so I’m formulating all these strategies to avoid my worst fears. You already know I’ve said no to tutoring in the first year and that I’ve been reading up on television drama. I’ve turned up to the University at a respectable time every day, except the day I did research work at the other university, for which I’ve allocated one full day a week. I’ve had How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors close at hand and will continue to refer to it throughout my degree because I need constant reminding of the various hints such books provide about these matters. I’ve been taking notes on my reading, entering them into endnote, and sitting down having brain-storming sessions at my computer, just trying to capture the thoughts sparked by my reading. The brain-storming has been quite productive. I came up with an idea for a chapter that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. And today in my first supervisor’s meeting with GT, as I talked him through the chapter outline (more like a random list than a plan in any coherent order) I had sent him beforehand, he seemed to be surprised, in a good way, about the thoughts contained in that suggested chapter.

The other thing that I’m determined to factor into everyday is a reward for myself, most likely in the form of lunch or coffee with fellow postgraduate students. I don’t work well if I threaten myself with name calling if I don’t write a certain amount of words or do a set amount of reading in so many hours. (I have seriously tried this approach and have never produced anything except paralysing self-hatred). But if I tell myself that I’m going to sit down and work for a certain amount of time and then go and have coffee and serendipitous conversation with my friends, then I’m productive and happy because I have something to look forward to. I hope all of this enthusiasm, planning and activity will see me through the duration of the degree.

Today in my meeting with GT, we discussed the mini-projects I can start to get underway. As well as general reading, the first task is an empirical one; I have to look through ten years worth of Australian television schedules and count the various types of programmes that have what I’m looking for in them to see if there has been an increase over the years. My thesis, as it currently stands, relies upon an increase. If there hasn’t been an increase, well, I’ll cross that bridge if I have to. Meanwhile, I’m trying to negotiate taking microfilm out of the library and back to the School so I can use the free printer attached to the viewing machine there. One of the librarians wavered, but another vetoed the idea. Clearly I’ll have to work out who I can bribe and go back with jelly beans when they’re alone. Perhaps I’ll ask GT if he will use his powers for good.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Shame

A column in the ‘Review’ supplement in The Weekend Australian (Jan 28-29) offers an introduction to a question that I have wanted to write about for a while now, that of the ‘problem’ of Australian-made television drama. The columnist, Peter Craven, asks ‘When was the last time you were startled watching Australian drama on television? Okay, wrong question, aiming too high. When were you at least quietly and deeply satisfied? (R40). He laments that, ‘The trouble with Australian TV drama ... is that it can seem an open invitation to despair and a source of national shame’.

Craven’s usual beat is the literature pages and it has been well-documented by Mark Davis in Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism that unless you’re a member of the middle to late-aged Australian literati, or already nestled comfortably in your grave, very little of what anyone else writes in Australia passes muster according to Craven’s exacting standards. In his approach to reviewing television, Craven takes a similar nostalgic turn, citing the ‘1995 docu-drama* Blue Murder’ as ‘towering TV’. His argument is not that Australian film-makers aren’t capable of producing television that startles, but that it happened in a kind of golden era that has long since passed. I remember watching Blue Murder and I agree with Craven on the calibre of that drama, Richard Roxburgh was scary as Roger Rogerson in a way that I can’t recall seeing him since. Before that, I also remember being impatient for each episode of Phoenix to screen on the ABC, and on the basis of that drama I actively sought out other productions from Simpson Le Mesurier such as Good Guys, Bad Guys with Marcus Graham and Allison Whyte, which Craven also cites as, if not extraordinary, then certainly ‘worth spitting at’. Again, I would probably agree with him on his assessment of that program.

Where Craven and I part ways is over his framing of the alleged paucity of Australian television drama as a ‘problem’. He talks about the ‘wasteland of Australian TV drama’, citing MDA and Love My Way and asks ‘How much mediocrity is a nation of 20 million supposed to sustain?’ He contrasts Australian TV drama to the ‘white hot ...viability’ of North American productions such as Law & Order and Desperate Housewives. I think the comparison between the products of the USA and Australia is unfair, and since Craven brought up the question of population, I’ll begin with that. If the entire population of Australia is equivalent to just one major metropolitan centre in North America, then it is obvious that the playing field is not level. The advertising revenue that can be generated from across North America and thus fund the development of television drama is exponential to that available to Australian television producers. I would be interested to know, on a per capita basis, the number of television dramas that reach at least the pilot stage of production in each country. Further, I would be interested to know what percent of those pilots, in each country, are then continued into production. After that I would like the figures on which programmes rate sufficiently, either critically or commercially, to be deemed successful. The USA produces a lot of excellent television, there is no denying that, and if it seems to produce it more consistently than Australian producers and networks, then I think a review of the statistics would put Craven’s complaint into perspective. We know that Desperate Housewives was rejected at least three times—once by HBO, no less—before the executives at the American Broadcasting Company agreed to fund its production; we know that not every single one of the Law & Order franchises that went into production has been ‘successful’; and, in Australia, we certainly know that America produces a lot of execrable television drama since we are subjected to a deluge of it every summer by networks who tell us that every programme was ‘a US smash hit’ watched there by over 20 million people.

Craven warms to ‘what we can achieve in comedy, such as Kath and Kim’. I love Kath and Kim, and I think We Can Be Heroes deserves at least a mention by Craven—Chris Lilley’s Australian of the Year hopefuls were sublime, as was his supporting cast. Then Craven remembers The Games by John Clarke, and again, I agree with his esteem for its ‘sheer expertness ... [and] adherence to a vision’.

Craven and I part ways for the second time when he seeks solutions as to how the success in comedy ‘might be transferred’ to drama. He cites Clarke as an ‘admirer of the early ‘60s BBC policy of commissioning one-off TV plays from which a series might originate rather than indulging in a set of expensive pilots that just pave the road to perdition with dead turkeys’. I appreciate Craven’s turn of phrase, but I’m suspicious of his advocacy of a policy not only from another era, but a different institutional setting. The early BBC was funded by revenue raised from television licences, it didn’t rely upon ongoing advertising revenue, which is surely the ghastly bottom line for securing support from Australian commercial television networks for the creation of drama series and serials. Perhaps Craven’s suggestion would be a suitable policy for the ABC to adopt, if only the present government would fund it, instead of punishing the whole corporation for some apparently unfavourable news reporting by just one department. The commissioning editor of SBS Independent might have had something like BBC practices in mind when she commissioned RAN: Remote Area Nurse, currently screening at 8.30 on Thursday evenings (although the final episode is on 9 Feb.). To answer the question with which Craven began his column, I have been startled, to say nothing of gob-smacked, every time I have watched this Australian produced drama over the past 5 weeks. There is certainly the demand from those who have left comments on the programme’s website to produce more episodes, perhaps another season, of this short series.



RAN: Remote Area Nurse didn’t warrant a glance in Craven’s column on Australian television drama. It may well be due to a time lag between Craven’s writing and the paper’s publication of the article, but that’s no excuse not to include the earlier seasons of The Secret Life of Us and the poorly-treated-by-Ten-but-more-than-deeply-satisfying Crash/Burn. Does an explanation for the omission of these dramas lie in Craven’s seemingly blinkered approach to contemporary television writers and producers? It would seem so if his call to adapt his favourite novelists and playwrights’ work to the small screen is any indication. He writes that the skills honed in other mediums are ‘some of the time... transferable’, suggesting, I would argue, that those who devote themselves to television are not quite up to producing ‘decent’ and ‘good’ Australian television drama. I’m still not convinced that Australian television drama even has a problem as Craven constructs it, but if there is such a problem then it most certainly isn’t assisted by the pronouncements of commentators who demonstrate little knowledge or appreciation for what is unique about the medium in its present form and only serve to perpetuate insidious and self-fulfilling myths about the deficiency of Australian television production.



If Craven wants Australians to produce home-grown versions of Desperate Housewives and Lost he must begin by acknowledging that the sources of inspiration for both of these programmes are television itself; Housewives is a dramatisation of a quandary raised in an episode of Oprah, and what is Lost if not a carefully scripted series of Survivor? In my opinion, having a literature critic and reviewer write on television is akin to letting an accountant make television programming decisions.


*Craven’s identification of the genre as docu-drama is incorrect as that term is widely understood. Blue Murder was a crime drama based on actual events, it employed actors to perform a written script and was shot utilising documentary conventions, especially hand-held camera. Docu-drama/soap is more descriptive of programs like Sylvania Waters, or for more contemporary examples, think of The Osbournes and Newly Weds, where the content is apparently factual, but structured and edited according to dramatic narrative conventions

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Back To School

Today was the official beginning of my PhD. When people ask me what I do, I can now reply ‘I’m a PhD Candidate’, instead of the vague, ‘I’ll be starting a PhD in February, I do a bit of research work...’ that I’ve been saying for the last few months. It felt strange that today had finally arrived; it has seemed like forever since I found out I was awarded a scholarship and had therefore been accepted into the research higher degree program. I got off the bus at the University and even though I’ve been going there to teach and for various other reasons over the past twenty-one months, since I submitted my Master’s, the day felt portentous. I could feel a smile coming over my face as I walked up the path from the bus stop.

My first port of call was to collect my student card. Naturally I took up the offer to have a new photo taken; the law of averages must surely dictate that the more ID photos you have taken, eventually they’ll capture your good side. I don’t know which I was more excited about, being eligible for student concession on public transport and at the movies again, or being able to take out books on my research topic from the library. Here is a list of the books I checked out:

Carson, Bruce and Margaret Llewellyn-Jones, ed. Frames and Fictions on Television: The Politics of Identity within Drama. Exeter, England: Intellect Books, 2000.

Davis, Glyn and Kay Dickinson, ed. Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

Dunleavy, Trisha and Pieter Aquilia, ed. Media International Australia: Popular TV Drama: Nation, Agency and Identity. St Lucia, Qld: School of English, Media Studies & Art History in association with the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, University of Queensland, 2005.

Jacobs, Jason. Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas. London: British Film Institute, 2003.

Lavery, David, ed. This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Thornham, Sue and Tony Purvis. Television Drama: Theories and Identities. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

I think identity might be a key area of exploration in TV Studies. Perhaps you can tell from my carefully formatted MLA referencing that while I was in the library, I also picked up my free copy of Endnote. I always feel very productive when I enter references into Endnote. Look at me typing essential references into a database.

Then I headed off to IT Services to get the most recent Dial-up Internet Access Installation CD to install at home. While I was at ITS I ran into another ‘new’ post-grad. whose excitement about the whole endeavour was contagious. I’m enjoying this first flush of enthusiasm for a new project. I know that it won’t last, unfortunately, certainly not once the enormity of the task ahead sinks in. I’m scared to death of failure all at the same time. I think it might be the same feeling that you get as a child when you drink too much raspberry lemonade. I ran into a friend who didn’t get a scholarship and I can only imagine how shattered he is; of course, he can’t afford to study without funding. His whole being was so different from usual.

I had the opportunity to have a word with my Master’s supervisor, who is now my Associate Supervisor. She said nice things to me. She commended my decision to say no to teaching in the first year; I had to refuse another offer today. (I thought of my personal, high-kicking cheering squad and said ‘No!’ as the trumpets reached a crescendo) We talked about the movies we had seen over the Christmas and New Year period, all in an effort to sit in air-conditioning. She also liked Good Night, and Good Luck and Broken Flowers (even though she doesn’t like Bill Murray and thought little of Lost In Translation). She showed me her new Apple laptop. Ooh! Err!

A first day would not be complete without at least one incident of administrative frustration. The system doesn’t recognise my student number. There will be phone calls and pleading tomorrow. There will also be desk allocation and new office mates, and after 3pm you can call me and I will give you the low-down on how to escape the M. Building at the University if ever you should visit during the event of a fire.

That was my first day back at school.