Last week, Australian writer Frank Moorhouse spoke at the University of Wollongong as a spin-off of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Alerted by the microscopic notice in the local newspaper, we went off to see him. We arrived just in time, negotiated with the ladies at the door, and went in. Arming ourselves with red wine and spring rolls, we sat down with about 80 others to listen to what Mr Moorhouse had to say.
I have read about Frank Moorhouse and his work before, but somehow have still never read any of his writing. Unfortunately, the last I had heard of him was in an uncomplimentary review of The Best Australian Stories 2004, which he edited; the reviewer thought the stories were too stylish rather than substantial. But I had also read glowing reviews of his recent novel Dark Palace and his humorous collection The Inspector-General of Misconception. As for the man himself, I didn’t really know what to expect.
After a traditional Aboriginal welcome and an introduction, Frank got up and started to talk about the obligations that readers have. For example, how much of a book must we read before we can legitimately decide that the book is no good? The audience had diverse views on this: one man thought that you really should read the entire book once you’d started it; others thought that 50 or 100 pages was enough to decide. (I was reminded of Shaw’s quip “You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.”) One woman said the minimum was 100 pages, but this number could be reduced by 5 for every year over 50: due to her greater life experience, a 60-year-old could tell a book’s quality after only 50 pages.
Frank thought that 100 pages was a traditional minimum, though his personal view was, reasonably enough, that you need feel no obligation to read something you don’t enjoy. Life is too short to spend it fretting about the Books You Should Have Read, the Books You Started a Long Time Ago and Now Need to Start Again, the Books Everyone Else Has Read, and so on. (This is all explored hilariously in Italo Calvino’s brilliant If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — it’s one of the Books You Should Read.)
Are there really women like Edith A. Campbell Berry? My resistance to believing it kept me at arm’s length as I started reading Dark Palace. Male writer, female protagonist — there’s a lot of skepticism to be overcome. Not only that, but Edith’s brand of introverted pedantry, bordering on neurosis, can get annoying. I got to maintain my ambivalence for the first hundred pages or so before the internal logic of her character became irresistible.
The magic 100-page limit strikes again.
Frank was a very engaging speaker, frequently sallying forth from behind the lectern, gesturing as if to wring his words out of the air. He included us all in his talk; he encouraged interjections and observations from the audience, making it more like an informal conversation than a formal lecture. We learned about his approach to his work and his ideas for future work too. But he also gave us some of his views as a reader, not just as a writer. I liked this; it’s nice to attend a Lecture by a Famous Author, but even better to converse with an enthusiastic fellow reader of books.
As I often do at these events, we bought a few books: Grand Days and Dark Palace, the first two tomes in a planned trilogy, and the lighter The Inspector-General of Misconception: The ultimate compendium to sorting things out. We asked Frank to sign them for us — in mine he wrote, “No fretting”. Words to live by.