Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Connivin' Miss Jaivin

I wish I hadn't borrowed a copy of The Age from my flatmate. Then, I wouldn't have seen this article by Leunig. The piece ends, "The audience explodes, the directly hurls me through a hole into the blazing light and there is St Peter, played by Andrew Denton, beaming and waiting to unmask me - a record of my life and a large coil of rope in his arms and the two pretty little chairs facing each other one-on-one: a picture of dignity and balance." It is chillingly captioned: "This is the first of an occasional coumn by Michael Leunig that will appear in A2".

I also wouldn't have seen an article by Linda Jaivin, portenously entitled, Inspiration from behind the wire.
"Why did comic writer Linda Jaivin turn her attention to asylum seekers?" asks the introduction. "Because of a simple desire to change the world."
My reaction to this: Linda Jaivin is a comic writer? Previously, I'd only heard of Jaivin as an erotic writer who for years had been doing minor book reviews on the pages of the Fairfax papers, and appearing occasionally on boring ABC Arts shows. Her ridiculous hair-dye and large glasses may have inspired a generation of women in older-middle-age who frequented libraries and bookshops, but that's all.
But, as it turns out, Jaivin not only 'sees' herself as a comic writer, she places herself amongst the best:

There is a long tradition of comic writers making big, important political statements. Remember Aristophanes? ... In Aristophanes hilarious Lysistrata, the woman of Athens go on a sex strike in order to force their men to stop the fighting. The men grow visibly - very visibly - frustrated and the women win.

Aside from the arrogance of this claim, Jaivin's interpretation of the play is stupidly simplistic. In Lysistrata the women become just as sexually frustrated as the men; and nobody desires to end the war because of any high minded Platonic ideals about a perfect society: one of Aristophanes main complaints about war is that it pushes the price of eels up. Jaivin therefore ignores some important context - that context being the rest of the play.
As far as I can see, Jaivin makes this interpretation of Aristophanes either because she is genuinely mistaken, or because she simply wants to align herself with a political ideology. (During the Iraq war, anti-war activists arranged for the play Lysistrata to be acted around the world as a 'protest' against the war; the plot of the play coincided nicely with the anti-war stereotype that 'men' cause war, and 'women' are the peacemakers. Just for once, I'd like to see anti-war activists admit that this stereotype was first popularised by an active member of the patriarchy, at the time when the word 'patriarchy' may have had meaning).

Apparently, Jaivin wants to 'change the world'. What her aims are, it's not certain. Possibly she wants to see an end to detention centres, though I'm not sure whether she wants to replace them with anything.
The same ambiguities emerge in The Age's review of Jaivin's book:

... it is the architects and tradesmen behind a policy that doesn't give a rats about the human beings confined by it - those who callously disregard the human rights of refugees - who appear un-Australian.

It's easy to make sniping judgments like this. But of course, if you favour a system of orderly immigration - and I'm sure most Age readers would - where people's claims to refugree status are assessed, then you will probably have to have some sort of detention system. It's either that, or letting people freely into Australia, and then keeping an eye on them through police/federal surveillance, regular check ups ... neither choice is pretty.
And inevitably, when refugee claims will have to be processed by a bureaucratic system. This always takes time; no government has ever been able to make a bureaucracy work quicker. So either way, 'orderly' immigration will sometimes be a long process.

Both Labor and Liberal support detention camps, which is why the Liberal Government are simply upholding the system of detention camps that Labor put in place. Personally, I couldn't care less if immigration is orderly or unorderley, and would be quite happy for us to be overwhelmed by Asians, overflowing with Arabs, overpopulated by British, or whoever else cares to come over here.
But when I see articles like this published in national newspapers, I have to hold my nose. There's a reason why the paper is pushing this line about Jaivin's book, and that reason is not journalistic integrity: it's simply trying to appeal to the 'Let's talk about how evil detention centres are in order to feel good about ourselves' crowd. Jaivin and her publisher help to set the tone by making the claim that Jaivin is a 'comic' writer and that she 'wants to change the world'. This series of reviews published in The Age are more about Jaivin's reputation than about the claims of asylum seekers and immigrants to Australian citizenship.
It stinks.


At 11:51 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Man, it looks like The Age is really desperate for content. That Leunig bit was the most godawful, ghastly thing I'm likely to read this week, and I'm not even going to bother with the Jaivin thing because she sounds like a right twunt, plus she's hideous to look at to boot.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Tim said...

If Jaivin's intention was to provoke sympathy for long-term detainees, the article was a success. If she's going in to bat for them with her "comic" writing, I feel nothing but pity for the poor buggers.

I skipped Leunig's column (although I did note with a shudder that it wasn't a one-off), but I checked out his cartoon. As usual, it made me want to punch things. Specifically things named Michael Leunig.

"Connivin' Miss Jaivin"? Wasn't that a Little Richard song?

At 2:30 PM, Blogger TimT said...

It's basically publicity for her book. The Age punched this line again and again: 'Linda Jaivin, comic writer!' My guess is the editor received a press release from the publishers and took it from there. Judging from the amount of times she's appeared in the media, Jaivin has more than a passing interest in promoting herself as a 'comic intellectual' sort as well.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger TimT said...

The interview with Denton Leunig refers to in his article is here, and is remarkable for two reasons: Denton's sharp questioning, and Leunig's terribly vague answers.

Leunig was a good cartoonist, though he was never a good columnist; but he hasn't produced anything really fresh or original for a long time. You have to ask, is he even capable, now, of the type of introspection and honesty that distinguishes the real artists from the hacks?

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Tim said...

And yet I've never heard her say anything comic. Or intellectual.

The review of Jaivin's book is yet another example of the disgraceful chuminess of the Australian lit/arts community. Woodhead (the reviewer) is either a Jaivin fan, or is good at pretending he is. Why not give the job to somebody with more balls?

Maybe the three of us should apply for reviewing jobs. Doubt we'd get 'em though.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Ha, they'd take freelance reviews, I'm sure. Reviewing's a funny business; it can be done well, but it is so often done so poorly. Maybe it's because it's so difficult to write a review that is not self-referential in some way (look! here's a writer sitting down to write about another writer, who he/she probably knows in anyway!) that the genre resorts to cliches so often.
Also, writing something honest about a book you intensely hate or love can be fucking difficult. I love Brian Aldiss's writing, but I have not been able to say one thing about him that is both intelligent, readable, and true.

Anyway, the root problem with Australian reviews and newspapers (and the Australian literary indsutry) is that there's so little competition. The Age's only major competitor in Melbourne is The Herald Sun, which barely seems to know that books exist. So they're writing for a captive audience.

It's made me think, more than once, how I'd love to own a publication of my own where I published wild and crazy shit from the funniest, most kick-arse writers that I could find. And I will. One day.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger TimT said...

That is, unless someone else does it first. There's competition and there's competition, you know what I'm saying? ...

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I hear ya. I had never really written book reviews before I started Sterne, so my initial reviews tended to be either honest accounts of what I thought of the book, and what I thought it was about, or newspaper-style reviews in which I tried to sound like every other lit reviewer in christendom. Guess which style worked best? These days I try to be as honest as possible, in style and content. I'm not going to stop making stupid jokes just because the book I am reviewing is a meditation on death. Stupid jokes are fundamental not only to the blog, but to my entire outlook! But that doesn't mean I can't also say something (hopefully) intelligent about the book along the way.

Having said all that, there are some books that I would find it impossible to write a coherent, worthwhile review of. But I guess that's the advantage of reviewing for love, not money - you can limit yourself to books about which you have something to say.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger TimT said...

You should keep it up. Good reviews are usually witty and bitchy, always have been. The problem seems to be that at the moment, people seem to think it is wrong to offend or hurt other people, at any time, in any way. So people tend not to say honest or critical things about other writers.

One of the most interesting and funnier things I ever read was 'the review that killed John Keats', an unfavourable 19th century review of Keats' poetry. One of the bitchiest - and funniest - Australian poems ever written was A.D. Hope's Dunciad Minor, where he criticises other literary critics in neo-classical, Pope-style verse. And P.J. O'Rourke's hilarious review of one of Jimmy Carter's biographies was a revelation to me: by simply setting up the joke at the start of the article, he proceeded to make me laugh at Carter's stupidity simply by requoting passages from the book. He didn't even have to say anything else in criticism or explanation - a remarkable feat.
There are a few good reviewers out there, yourself included, that give us all hope!


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