by Laura Russo
Reading like an Australian writer presents 25 essays on the craft of writing literary fiction and some of the purposes such writing can serve.
Editor of the collection, award-winning novelist Belinda Castles, acknowledges it was inspired by the New York Times bestseller Reading like a writer by opening her introduction with a quote from that book’s author, Francine Prose. But where Prose’s book presents her exploration into the craft of writing through the close reading of classic Western authors (mostly men), Reading like an Australian writer is a collection of diverse essays by accomplished Australian novelists (mostly women), all of whom also teach and mentor other writers. Both books are propelled by the notion that attentive reading is vital to the alchemy of writing well.
While the primary audience of Reading like an Australian writer is writer–readers, there is much fodder here for structural editors of fiction too.
The essays plumb the depths of works by some of the contributors’ favourite authors, including Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Charlotte Wood and Michelle de Kretser, and they traverse a broad spectrum of styles from accessible, conversational and personal through to academic and (occasionally) slightly opaque.
But doesn’t an understanding of the mechanics behind a novel spoil the enjoyment of reading? Not according to Cate Kennedy: “A story is like close-up magic, and even if you try to practise magic yourself, it doesn’t ruin the thrill of it for you when you sit in the audience and admire someone else doing it with passion, skill and bravado.”
Kennedy’s essay is a meticulous dissection of the first seven pages of Tim Winton’s Breath, exploring the way he builds implicit tension in his writing. It has prompted me to return to that novel after several years with fresh and more inquisitive eyes.
Angela Meyer’s instructive essay also explores the creation of narrative tension in M J Hyland’s three novels, How the light gets in, Carry me down and This is how.
Anna Spargo-Ryan delves into recent works with animal narrators (Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the animals and Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country) who “hold a mirror to the human reader. They are able to offer insight … to critique social, political and economic behaviour with an implied objectivity”.
Nigel Featherstone considers the audacity, fearlessness and political purpose of Christos Tsiolkas’s writing.
Rose Michael and Jane Rawson together reflect on the twin crises we currently face — COVID-19 and climate change, primarily through the dystopian novels of Lucy Treloar and Laura Jean McKay — to ask: “What can dystopian fiction teach us about living in a crisis, or writing through one?”
And in a fitting signal to the diversity of the collection, it is bookended with essays by Indigenous writers Mykaela Saunders and Ellen van Neerven, exploring Aboriginal representation and perspectives of place and being.
This is a collection to savour slowly and not necessarily in consecutive order. I found it inspiring and nourishing, and am certain you will too.
Laura Russo is a writer of narrative nonfiction and works as a freelance editor and writer.