Saturday, April 01, 2006

Which Is The Greater Crime?

Way back in 1993, a thick-ankled young lass from Brisbane, Helen Dale (nee Darville), won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, one of Australia’s highest literary accolades (just as a pile of rabbit droppings would be the highest point on a perfectly flat expanse of desert), for a little book called The Hand That Signed The Paper. As though two surnames wasn’t already enough, the book was released under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko, and in 1995 her efforts were rewarded with a Miles Franklin Award (picture horse manure).

I never read it, but the rest of Australia was going nutty for The Hand That Signed The Paper, a story of Ukrainianism, Stalinism, and Nazism, and finally Australianism. Naturally, when you’re dealing with Nazis, it is considered criminal to not go on and on about the Jewish experience (even if the whole conceit of your project is to examine the Holocaust from a different perspective), so the book was also accused of anti-Semitism, and in the wake of the Franklin, plagiarism. The isms were coming thick and fast and eventually it came to light that Demidenko was a hoax, her real name was Dale/Darville, the book was total fiction, the Mile Franklin judges were frauds, and the Australian literary landscape was, as already alluded to, a perfectly flat and featureless expanse of mediocrity.

But nevertheless, Australia had been betrayed! Who did this woman think she was, writing a book and then getting it published and then getting positive reviews and then receiving awards for it? False pretenses or not, the very fact that the awards were granted on the basis of the plot and alleged inspiration of the book, rather than on the quality of the writing, then the awards themselves may safely be considered farcical and useless.

And it seems that Australia’s literary elite is still not quite done with Miss D. In The Age today, a piece with the heading UNMASKED NOVELIST SNAPS has appeared, wherein a recent column by Helen Dale that appeared in Australian Skeptic has fomented the input of one Simon Caterson, journalist (and probably poet in his spare time). We learn that, recently, Dale has been studying in London to be a ninja, and has also become a lawyer, or judge’s associate, whatever that is (further counterfeit?). She has also been cultivating the look of a Byron Bay fish ‘n’ chip shop worker. But according to Caterson’s headline she has “snapped”, because she wrote this thing in Australian Skeptic, lambasting the Australian literary community (hell hath no fury; she should be careful), the media, and various and sundry for their involvement in what she claims was never anything more than a work of fiction based on a few stories related to her by some old Ukrainians. I don’t really care about the particulars of the case, so you are welcome to research them for yourself.

Caterson does not spare Australian Skeptic, either, and ends his article with a snippy “the magazine did not verify the article’s content”, after taking pains to tell us that the mag is all about the careful investigation of “charlatans, hoaxes, Holocaust denial and racism and racial theories”.

Aussie literati certainly enjoy their controversy, and after the James Frey thing in the US, probably felt left out, and since nothing fresh was going on, decided to unbury Demidenko.

But what is the point of my poorly-structured rant? Simply this: in the very same edition of The Age, much approval is heaped upon Theft: A Love Story, by needledicked “Australian” author Peter Carey (who has lived exclusively in New York since 1990, and sadly has not yet been shot).

The headline reads: “Art and deceit meet in Carey’s new novel”. And indeed they do. At 288 pages, it retails for $45.

Which is the greater crime?


At 12:36 AM, Anonymous phil kimby said...

Quite agree with your comments about Carey. I should point out that Helen Demidenko, whatever one claims about her scribblings, has made at least one significant cultural contribution to Australia.

I speak of course of the massed Helen Demidenko battalion in the 1994 G&L Mardi Gras. The memory of their golden tresses flowing along Oxford St lingers with me still.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Man, Carey's an arse. I count Bliss as one of the worst novels I have actually made it all the way through, although this was back when I used to feel guilty if I didn't finish a novel. For some reason I later tried Oscar and Lucinda and his short stories, but it's all the same turgid, middle-brow crap.

As for Dale/Darville/Whatever, I didn't understand the fuss at the time, and I still don't now. She sounds dodgy, but if you disqualify dodgy people from writing books, there goes most of literature.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger JPW said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger JPW said...

I don't get the fuss either. When you've got a bunch of people who are hysterical over an extremely mild literary hoax, and fair bow-legged with anticipation for the latest armpit scratchings of Bacchus Marsh's biggest writerly wanker, then it's fair to say that you live in a country where people wouldn't know a good book, indeed a good paragraph, if it took them roughly from behind while punching them in the back of the neck.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I didn't mind Bliss. It's interesting in a way, because it gave a new type of character to Australian fiction - the wanker-yuppie who finds he can't handle his inner-city urban lifestyle any more, so he throws it all in and becomes a hippy/hermit. It's there in Tim Winton's Dirt Music, as well.

Books like that are kind of annoying, because they're usually full of ridiculous stereotypes about the rat race, the evils of technology, and so on.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Brownie said...

'which is the greater crime?' - the thick ankles, I reckon. Olivia Newton-John has em too poor thing. A lifetime of long skirts and boots.

anyhow, my view of the books and book awards thing is perfectly summarised by your excellent post.
Demi-Dale, Frey, and that Muslim Woman writer whose name evades me, committed no crime other than 'embarrassing' the book reviewers.
A book is not a sworn statement on oath, it's an entertainment for chrissakes.
As you said most aptly: 'disqualify dodgy people from writing books, there goes most of literature'.

At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caterson's as fraudulent as the frauds he writes about.


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