Cheeseburger Gothic

You can’t eat artistic integrity. It tastes like sawdust.

Posted May 3, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

Another piece I wrote during the Sydney Writers Festival. Fucked if I remember where. Maybe Time Off.

Kim Scott, Roger McDonald, Shirley Hazzard and Alex Miller all have Miles Franklins. You’ve never heard of any of them. J K Rowling, Tom Clancy, Stephen King and Dan Brown steal plots from vintage Scooby Doo cartoons, and construct characters out of processed cheese — but if you haven’t got one of their books, you’re probably dead.

As the deadline for submission to the Nobel Commitee approached, JB knew he would have to get serious if he was to finally take down his bitter rival Vargas Llosa...

Remember when reading Literature was interesting? Hemingway, was literature, you know. He had to be. They 'teach' him now. And Hemingway would shit hedgehogs if he saw the state of the Art these days. Back in Earnesto's day, you couldn’t bang out an Art novel and spend the rest of your life necking wine and cheese on the festival circuit. Back in his day, you weren’t a writer unless people actually wanted to read your stuff.

We can’t ask Clancy, King and Rowling to help out. They’re too busy rolling in mountains of money. This problem has to be solved by the people who created it. By people like Gail Jones, for example.

Jones is an Aussie literary lion. Twice shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, she wipes her talented bottom with literary awards. Her most novel Sorry, is an “exquisite story of ... troubled childhood” which “ ...explores the values of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice....... ad;flk;lkjlkjjjjjj

What? Oh. Apologies — I dropped off for a moment there.

Success! Your hairless arse is mine VARGAS LLOSA!!!

Okay, Gail. Cred is good, but coin is better. You can’t eat artistic integrity. It tastes like sawdust. So the first thing we need to do is figure out what genre Sorry belongs in, because genre fiction is the stuff that sells. Luckily this is a no-brainer. Set in Western Australia in the ‘thirties, we’ve got a story about white men clashing with the natives. So, if you’re looking forward to the ching-ching-ching of major cash at the local Book Barn, Sorry should be retooled as a Western.

With a bit of guidance from cowboy opera legends Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, a writer like Jones should be able to tickle this turkey ‘til it crows like a rooster.

First, though, we have to fix the writer. Zane Grey was a rogerer and roisterer. Louis L’Amour travelled the world as a merchant seaman and fought as a tank commander in WWII. You're a lecturer in cultural studies, Gail? Hmm. You should think about driving big trucks full of sweating gelignite for a day job. Zane woulda done it. Just for fun. Louis woulda smoked few sticks as novelty cigars.

And that title? Nothing turns off the punters like a limp, ambiguous title. Zane and Louis never said sorry. They were too busy beating back Apaches and gunning down rustlers in Riders Of The Purple Sage or The Quick And The Dead. Sure, Sorry sort of reflects the theme of the novel. But how about: A Man Called Sorry.

I smell gunsmoke, saddlesoap and a Clint Eastwood movie spin off already.

Then it’s just a matter of swapping out all that character development and exquisitely layered narrative you wasted so much time on, and replacing it with some gun fights and horse riding. Maybe throw in a dynamite duel too. Dynamite is always an excellent narrative choice.

But Gail Jones can't carry the revolution by herself. Yes, I'm looking at you, Helen Garner. How many years have you been the righteous front-persyn of rational academic Feminism in Oz? You've got more cred than a whole netball squad of Germaine Greers armed with crutching irons. So what do we get from you? The Spare Room:a searing drama of a woman taking up space on someone else's fold-away futon so she can die – very slowly, for sure – of cancer.

Dammit, Helen – you got leverage. In Australia, Feminism is whatever the frock you say it is. Take a couple-hundred pages from Danielle Steele. Peek through the saggy vinyl blinds into that spare room, and show us some serious boobage! You can still do all that deep affirmation-of-life and acceptance-of-death stuff, except you make sure your female lead has bodacious taa-taas and a string of swaggersome boytoys with whom to make thunderous rumpy-pumpy.

And lingerie. You're gonna need lingerie for the cover art, plus a whole bunch more to splash around the storyline. Can't remember the difference between a bustier and a merry widow? Your audience won't care anyway, so long as it's lacy and silky and tears away easily in the hot, sweaty hands of the hero. And the villain. And the main girl's best girlfriend too.

Of course, the really big bucks come from the US market. Luckily, the Yanks have sent us an author for the SWF. Junot Diaz is a nerdy Dominican-American from the East Coast, whose Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is (kind of unsurprisingly) about a nerdy Dominican-American from the East Coast and his quest for love. And, um, stuff.

Oscar Wao is big on the fan-boy SF scene, and for some reason, confuses his homeland with Geek Country: "What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?"

Nice try, Junot, but it won't wash. Science fiction is good, and fantasy pays like a mint run by Swedish hookers, but everybody knows the Dominican Republic isn't science fiction territory. That's Clancy-land down there.

Tom Clancy, that is: a world of drugs, guns, spies, killer satellites, terrorists, assassins, and hard-bitten American special forces. Writing a Clancy novel is easy. All you gotta do is start every new scene with a dateline, like this – San Cristobal Beach, April 22nd, 0035hrs. Those twenty-four hour time-stamps just ooze the militaristic authenticity that Clancy's readers really dig. Other than that, you gotta remember the Americans are the good guys, drugs are bad, and Clancyland characters never go anywhere without a silenced 9mm fully automatic Grunder-Schloss microgun packed with HEAP ammo stuffed into their undies.

Stick to those rules, you can have Oscar Wao do pretty much whatever the hell he wants and the techno-thriller crowd won't care. They'll be too busy emailing you with details of how you got the safety catch wrong on the left-handed model of the Skorpion submachinegun featured on page fifty-six.

Not that it matters, because ultimately the goal is to spin up the zeroes on your bank balance. You can do it with horses, hooters, guns, spaceships, dragons, or any mixture of the above. The only rule you really have to remember is this: five sequels and a movie deal trumps a Miles Franklin every time.

21 Responses to ‘You can’t eat artistic integrity. It tastes like sawdust. ’

Dave W mutters...

Posted May 3, 2013

I've never understood why it's better to read something because it's Literature. I've tried reading Literature. It's shit. If the reader has to work that hard to understand the similes, metaphors and allusions then how hard has the author worked to get those suckers in there. If they've worked that hard on those types of things, generally I believe that other stuff will have suffered, like plot and readability. But how important should plot and readability be? Why would an author want their novel to be read? That would go against the grain of anyone serious about being a Literary author, right?

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mark russell has opinions thus...

Posted May 3, 2013

Luv it! You ripped into the literati and the mainstream pulpsters at the same time. If it's in the limelight rip it apart. Just wish I had some fame so I could do the same.

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Therbs swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 3, 2013

Big 'L' scribbling is fine but we need 'Splodey as well. Anyone venturing to a Sydney Writers Festival note that a shuttle bus runs from near the Fortune of War pub in The Rocks. I found this out quite happily after getting bored by lit wankerdom a few years back. My SWF advice is go to the Fortune of War, get your SWF cred in by nodding at some turtleneck wankbadger, have a few beers then go see Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Darth Greybeard mumbles...

Posted May 3, 2013

I want a Turtleneck Wankbadger action figure. Do they sell them at Dymocks?

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w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted May 3, 2013

I think I have read every western novel of note, and quite a few that are not remotely noteworthy.

Zane Grey's 1912 novel, "Riders Of The Purple Sage", is a moral meditation and an action adventure. The enemy is the religious and gender intolerance employed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints at the time.
I kid you not.
It is an enjoyable read. The central character is a woman.
Possibly a demonstation that genre fiction can have a serious theme, and be a popular fiction page turner.

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JG swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 3, 2013

I guess it's what you become used to. I feel like I *should* like more literary literature, but I find it too boring. It bogs me down in too much detail. Sure, I like abstract ideas, but not to the point where there's no story.

I'm too used to reading popular fiction. It's nice to read a good literary work now and then, but my preference is to read what interests me. I guess studying Latin all those years in high school many years ago was a waste of time. Not to worry. JB's writing is beautiful and lyrical at times. Good writing is good writing: it doesn't matter if it's 'literary', 'trade commercial', or whatever. I read writers who write well, but they're not considered literary.

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pi asserts...

Posted May 3, 2013

You crack me up JB.

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted May 3, 2013

"Back in his day, you weren’t a writer unless people actually wanted to read your stuff" I have heard this title given t some writers who are

more reviewed than read.

Didn't get nominated for the Miles Frak-lin again this year JB? Don't feel bad I believe it's a complete sausage-free field this year.

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w from brisbane has opinions thus...

Posted May 3, 2013

Speaking of popular culture,

“this exquisite story of ... troubled childhood which ...explores the values of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice."

That basically defines the quintessential sports narrative, except it is real people.
It is funny when literary saga promoters spurn sports as a field of interest, when what makes sport interesting is so similar to what makes literary sagas interesting.

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Daniel Young mumbles...

Posted May 3, 2013

Comparing (so-called) Literary fiction and genre fiction is like comparing (so-called) Arthouse films with big budget Hollywood films.

One serves to entertain. The other makes you think and feel. I'll let you decide which is which.

There's room for both, if you open your brain up.

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Legless puts forth...

Posted May 3, 2013

Clancy wrote some awesome 'splodey books and then lost his artistic integrity and started to churn out absolute crap. His last decent book was The Bear And The Dragon. Since then I wouldn't use one of his books to wipe my arse.

Oddly enough, Clancy's place in my library has been taken by none other than yourself, Mr B.


John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 3, 2013

I can't recall the last of his I bothered with. I think the war with Japan one.

He is much better when writing about things, rather than people.

damian mutters...

Posted May 3, 2013

Yeah I think the Japan one was the last I read too. I think I read the precis of the one after (President Jack after all) and thought either 1) "you've got to be joking", 2) "sod this for a game of soldiers", 3) "wasn't that a chuck norris movie" or 4) all of the above.

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Brian mumbles...

Posted May 3, 2013

Hmm . . . .in 50 years time Lit students will be de thesis on Clancy, Rowling etc and the Big Award winners will be footnotes.

This is only an observation of course, as most of the biggies Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton were all pretty popular and populist in their time. Society favourites? You have to Google to work out who won what prize, when . . .history has all but erased them. Simply put . . .some people's leave lasting monuments others don't. The ones that do, make a buck.

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Surtac mutters...

Posted May 3, 2013

I just scared my workplace LOLling at this one, JB.

It's all true though - you nailed it.

I'm reading a big L literature book at the moment- yes it's all a 'coming of age' story and a 'you can't go home again - the past is a different country' type of story. I can see all that coming at me. But what keeps me reading is the humour: the love of language, the sly puns and weirdness of schoolboy humour, the image of the young teenager defiling a snooty golf course by 'laying some cable' in the cup on the 11th green and so on ...

What is this strange book, you ask? It's Stonemouth by Iain Banks.

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Brother PorkChop reckons...

Posted May 3, 2013

All true but very very funny. Hooters and shooters to live like a king.

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Graham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 3, 2013

People today seem to confuse "literary fiction" with big-L "literature". When I was young, a work didn't get to be called literature until it had been around a long time and still had a lot of people who loved it (or it had acquired them). Literary fiction is just another marketing category that includes all those maundering (because they're almost plotless) novels about adultery, coming of age, finding yourself, etc., etc.. In fact, people are so confused between the two that they think the awards for literary fiction are actually for literature.

The notion that literary fiction has any kind of monopoly on exploring ideas or making people think is patently wrong. In fact, the endless turning over of rocks and navel gazing that goes on in literary fiction strikes me as sterile in the extreme, perpetually "exploring the human condition" in the same way that Mills and Boon has explored the nature of romance.

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Dino not to be confused with puts forth...

Posted May 3, 2013

"Remember when reading Literature was interesting?"

Says it all JB.

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w from brisbane reckons...

Posted May 3, 2013

Yep, Dino,
Books that have a literature style, good english, but just aren't much good.
There are exceptions e.g. Rohinton Mistry 'A Fine Balance'. A cracker. It gives one faith.

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tqft swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 3, 2013

I dont think I have ever read "Literature".

Watched "films" &/or "cinema" yes as opposed to movies or flicks.

But literature looks like work and not entertaining. Sorry not interested, if I want to explore the inner life of people I can loo around me. I read to escape not relive, And happy to pay for it.

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Rhino reckons...

Posted May 4, 2013

Here's what I want to see ... I want a book with scrappy heroes and splodey goodness where the bad guys win. Period. No sequels. No do-overs. No matter what the heroes do they cannot overcome Competent Evil Nemesis.

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