Other Stories cover Wayne Macauley
Other Stories
Wayne Macauley

Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture. This is one of the best books by an Australian I’ve read all year. Do yourself a favour and go buy it now
Emmett Stinson, 3RRR and Known Unknowns
Some of the best fiction Australia has to offer... One of Australia’s deadpan visionaries
Owen Richardson, The Sunday Age

Macauley’s short fiction collection, including ‘Reply To A Letter’, winner of The Age Short Story Competition
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Emmett Stinson (short story writer, academic and publisher) launched Other Stories by Wayne Macauley on 26 October 2010 at the North Fitzroy Arms

In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky? In Boxstead Court, in Keilor Downs, as evening fell and the stars came out on just such a night as this, Michael Ebeling, the panel beater, who had not had a very good day, decided to do exactly that. He took the mattress from his bed and laid it down in the street, away from the fluorescent streetlight that threw down a cold-hearted glow. He took off his shirt, his pants, his socks and lay with his arms by his side.

‘For anyone who thrills to a hypnotic prose style and incisive social satire, I would urge you to discover his work!’
Martin Shaw, Readings Monthly


Sunday 29 August 2010, 10:00 AM, Free at Feddish (bar/eatery at Federation Square)
Event Name: The Morning Edition
Panelists: Emili Rosales, WAYNE MACAULEY, Evelyn Juers, Kirsten Tranter
Topic: Kickstart the day with a piping hot cup of literary goodness as a specially selected blend of writers discuss and read from their work


Hear ‘The Hair of the Dog’ from Other Stories by Wayne Macauley podcast on Radio Nationals SundayStory, read by William Zappa,
4 November 2012

See also Wayne Macauley’s website

Book Description

Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories is a much-awaited collection. Here at last Macauley’s peculiar take on the world is gathered together in short stories, satires, fables and anecdotes. Many are set in the hinterland of the outer suburbs where big cars, big driveways, big houses and big skies make small people feel lost and strange. This familiar world seems eerie, like a Jeffrey Smart painting. His yarns of the margins are at the centre of our culture.

Macauley’s short fiction has appeared for over a decade in our most prestigious literary magazines, including Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Island and Griffith Review. As novelist and playwright he is one of our most original and challenging writers and a winner of The Age Short Story Competition. His two corrosive novels, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, won critical acclaim.

For anyone who thrills to a hypnotic prose style and incisive social satire, I would urge you to discover his work!

Martin Shaw, Readings Monthly

ISBN 9781876044664
Published 2010
172 pgs
Other Stories book sample

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One Night
Wilson’s Friends
A Short Report From Happy Valley
The Man Who Invented Television
Simpson And His Donkey Go Looking For The Inland Sea
A Hair Of The Dog
Jack The Dancer Dies
Man And Tree
The Bridge
The Streets Are Too Wide
This Bus Is Not A Tram
So Who’s The Wrecker Then?
Decency’s Grave
Reply To A Letter
The Affair In M—
The Farmer’s New Machine
The Dividing Spring
Gordon’s Leap

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Kaleidoscopic fiction
Laurie Steed
Australian Book Review, February 2011, No. 328

How to review a book that includes, as major characters, Simpson and his donkey, the Dig Tree, and a bus that may or may not be a tram? In the case of Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories,it is best to read story by story, pausing only to chart connecting themes in the cultural landscape.

MacAuley’s short fiction draws inspiration from a surprisingly broad range of influences. Adam Lindsay Gordon, Simpson, and the inland sea are all featured in his kaleidoscopic rendition of Australian history. The author also revisits suburbia, seeing the potential for both connection and disconnection in widening roads and disjointed communities.

What sets Macauley apart from his contemporaries is his willingness to experiment with form and theme. His shortest stories, such as ‘The Streets Are Too Wide’ and the excellent ‘One Night’, are lingering images that veer closer to narrative poetry than to prose. His longer pieces weave tales about elaborate themes: his 1995 Age Short Story Competition winner, ‘Reply to a Letter’,explores the implicit bonds between a husband, a wife, and their performing bear. High concept, for the most part, takes precedent over character. In some of the shorter pieces, characters are barely developed at all. Even in the longer ones, it is difficult for the reader fully to connect with the emotional core of any of the players.

Regardless, Other Stories is an excellent collection. There is much to admire here: lyrical, rhythmic prose melds effortlessly with Macauley’s uncanny ability to create an indelible image, and the author plays raconteur with great ease. The result is a thinking man’s compendium of quality literature, while the heart gets slightly short shrift.

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Elizabeth Bryer on Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories
Guest reviewer: Elizabeth Bryer, Angela Meyer’s Literary Minded
2 December 2010, Crikey

Other Stories brings together Melbourne-based Wayne Macauley’s output over the past decade and counting. The collection is filled with ‘other’ stories - tales that are other, or outside the mainstream, in a double sense. They are other in subject, given that they are stories that trace the lives of characters who exist on the margins, or characters who would be otherwise unlikely contenders for centre stage in Australian literature; and they are other in an industry sense, since the collection is published not by a multinational - or even large independent - publisher, but by small outfit Black Pepper. Many are also other-worldly stories, stories about ordinary people who find themselves contending with surreal experiences.

Some of the collection’s tales read as allegories. Yet this age-old form is given new life in Macauley’s hands, and most of the allegories are firmly placed in recognisable, contemporary Australian territory: the stories are populated with trams, inner-city ex-bohemian suburbs, one-street towns and places where ‘houses have crept up the valley... the skeleton bones of the new houses marching’.

Other tales develop in less familiar, though still recognisable, worlds, both in setting and content: ‘Jack the Dancer Dies’ has a personified death as protagonist in a poetic take on the fable ‘The Red Shoes’, while in ‘Man and Tree’ a woman’s brother transforms into a tree.

Throughout, there is wry commentary on modern society, which makes the collection seem almost prophetic. For example, no sooner has a man turned into a tree than: ‘They came in their hundreds, bumping up the fire track and crashing through the bush. The local shire sealed the road, cleared a square of land for a car park, and began charging five dollars to see him’. In another story, the narrator recounts how he hires out bohemians to real-estate agents in order that ex-bohemian inner suburbs - which the bohemians were pushed out of - exude a measure of ‘character’ and ‘ambience’. Elsewhere, schoolboys who ride trams are set to work re-stumping houses in an informal labour market, until various regulations ensue and ‘records could then be matched against the previously agreed quotas and notices might then be placed in trams informing the public whether or not these targets had been reached’.

In some of these stories-as-commentary, there is a Kafkaesque sense of the oppressive and ominous presence of authority and systems, such as in ‘This Bus Is Not a Tram’, in which buses are plastered with signs declaring that they are trams and all passengers are expected to take on this belief; or in ‘The Bridge’, where the protagonist dutifully carries out his superiors’ orders to guard a bridge, and throughout there is a mounting sense that the orders and subsequent occurrences are some kind of cruel psychological experiment. In another sharply critical tale, the excesses of political leaders - and their general tendency to wreak havoc - are detailed; then, in a single moment, the blame for their behaviour is squarely placed on the public’s shoulders, for our condoning their symbolic gestures and our apathy when it comes to considered, responsible voting. Meanwhile, ‘The Farmer’s New Machine’ is chilling in its portrayal of the lengths gone to in the name of progress, and in the name of supporting a lifestyle of excess on this driest of continents.

The language that Macauley employs is usually simple, but is often used to great effect to create rhythmic structures. Many stories take the form of kinds of first-person testimonials, which facilitate this rhythmic style. Occasionally a metaphor is so arresting for its clarity of vision that it takes your breath away - for example, after a magical night, ‘something still lingered, some ineffable thing, like a porchlight left on all day’. At times the language is image-rich, such as in the phrase, ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond...’

The only (small) reservation I had about the collection was its occasional use of place names as short cuts for establishing setting: while ‘Keilor Downs’ may evoke some connotations for a Melburnian, would it do the same for a reader from elsewhere? Yet, all in all, this is an accomplished collection from an as-yet underappreciated Australian writer who is, nevertheless, slowly, surely achieving a significant output, both in quantity of titles and importance and relevance of the same not only to Australian literature but also to each reader. We could do much worse than learn from these tales.

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Shorts are back in
James Ley (critic, member of the University of Western Sydney Writing and Society Research Group)
The Weekend Australian, 13 November 2010

The Australian short story has been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years. Collections such as Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Nam Le’s The Boat, Paddy O’Reilly’s The End of the World, Bob Franklin’s Under Stones and Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing (to name only a handful) is indicative of a renewal of interest in the form and the breadth of local talent.

A notable feature of tins resurgence is its spirit of playfulness. These are writers unbounded by conventional notions of realism or literary respectability, willing to experiment with genre and incorporate fanciful or offbeat concepts into their fiction.

The short story has seemingly provided a more amenable way for many contemporary authors to exploit the essential contingency of storytelling. For O’Reilly, Franklin and Cho, a robust sense of humour is an intrinsic part of this conceptual freedom.

Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories can also be placed in this category. Macauley is a seasoned writer who has published two novels, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, and has written for the theatre. Other Stories brings together short fiction written over the course of nearly two decades, most of which has appeared in a number of Australia’s literary journals.

One of the most substantial inclusions, ‘The Bridge’, is a poised and darkly ironic excursion into Coetzeean allegory, but the dominant mode, and Macauley’s true métier, is a form of slyly satirical comedy.

Each of the pieces in Other Stories is based on a quirky conceit of some kind. These are by turns strange, unreal or merely funny. Sometimes, as in the standout story, ‘The Man who Invented Television’, the concept is gleefully anachronistic. But each tale is crafted into a small, self-contained world.

The stories roam widely, but many prowl the suburbs of Melbourne, where Macauley finds plenty to whet his satirical blade. ‘Bohemians’ is a sardonic comment on the process of inner-city gentrification; ‘Wilson’s Friends’ spins the idea of a man offering to buy a schoolboy with a price tag accidentally stuck to his sleeve into an amusing fable about the economics of workplace relations; ‘So Who’s the Wrecker Then?’, in which a politician runs amok with a bulldozer, would seem to be a not-so-veiled dig at former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.

But there is a balancing warmth to Macauley’s fiction. His barbs can be pointed but his humour is generally forgiving. Other Stories begins with a tale in which the residents of a suburban street emerge on a mild evening to sleep under the stars and end up engaged in a love-in; it ends with a fine story based on the life and suicide of poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. In between, there are frequent intimations of the great distances that can come to exist between people: ‘The Streets are Too Wide’, which is more prose poem than story, literalises the figurative distance; while Macauley’s silent protester, slowly absorbed into the tree he is trying to save, presents an image of terrible loneliness.

Yet it is the persistent and welcome note of affirmation that makes this a likable collection. In one story, a homeless man embarks on a cross-town odyssey, setting out on a quest (more Dorothean than Homeric) to find a place called Garden City so that he might ‘gather flowers for Decency’s grave’. He never gets there. He is eventually arrested while brushing his teeth with someone else’s toothbrush, having wandered into their house. The man is deluded, but by the end you are on his side. After all, going to such trouble to find flowers to put on Decency’s grave is a thoroughly decent thing to do.

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Other Stories
Owen Richardson, The Sunday Age, 24 October 2010 (The Age Review of the Week)

“He is one of Australia’s deadpan visionaries.”

Melboume writer Wayne Macauley’s first novel Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe was published in 2004, and his second, Caravan Story, in 2007. His fiction deals in parables and allegories, satirical fantasies of the bureaucratised, neo-liberal world, and yarns that read like the dreams of some collective suburban unconscious; he is a writer of great purity, combining social critique, fertile imagination and the highest aesthetic scruples. His work is some of the best fiction Australia has to offer.

This new book collects the stories he has been publishing since the early 1990s. There are 19 in all, though the book is not long: many are hardly more than a couple of pages and at 21 pages, ‘The Bridge’ is the collection’s epic.

Figures from the Australian past appear, such as Simpson and his donkey, and Adam Lindsay Gordon; television is invented in 19th century Melbourne; a woman’s brother turns into a tree; Death himself loiters behind the changing rooms at a suburban football ground, calling people to his dance. And just as Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe was a fable about an outer suburban development, and Caravan Story about the co-optation of artists by the government, in this book, too, the fate of the city and of the artists who try to live in it are among Macauley’s preoccupations.

Macauley is a moralist: there are parables of greed and corruption such as ‘Decency’s Grave’, and ‘The Dividing Spring’, in which a natural spring causes the dishonest people who drink from it to become sick. As the 1990s arrive, more and more are exposed: “the filed reports of the St John Ambulance team now stationed there permanently showed them treating up to a hundred serious cases a day.”

And the spirits both of Swift’s A Modest Proposal and of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony lurk behind ‘The Farmer’s New Machine’, a story that pivots on the single line “This continent is 60 per cent arid. The human body is 60 per cent water: work it out for yourself.”

One of the stories reminds you sharply of its age: in ‘So Who’s the Wrecker Then?’, from 1999, the unnamed larrikin premier is visiting a building site. Rather than throw sand at journalists, as Jeff Kennett did, he gets into a bulldozer, with which he then runs amok: first he chases after the media and then demolishes a school, a childcare centre, a hospital and a church.

We all know, of course, that preachy is a bad thing for fiction to be, but the sardonic exaggerations of these stories have such clarity of outline, and the writing is so controlled, that they have the graphic power of the very best cartoons.

Whether or not Macauley is arguing against the way we live now, the writing is unfailingly exact in its effects: towards the end of the first story in the book - about the night all the inhabitants of Boxstead Court, Keilor Downs, dragged their mattresses out into the street and slept under the stars - Macauley tells us that afterwards “something still lingered, some ineffable thing, like a porchlight left on all day.” The image is so right that Macauley’s discovery of it is also an ineffable thing.

His opening lines pull surprises on us; they lead us down the path from our world into his alternative universes. Here he pulls the trick twice: first on the word “television”, announced with a little flourish of neo-Victorian pedantry; and then at the end:

Over the course of one glorious summer, in the year 1855, in a house in a burgeoning city soon to become known as Marvellous Melbourne, the amateur inventor and professional copy clerk Henry Welter finally brought to a practical realisation the invention he had been working on assiduously for the previous 10 years, videlicet the television set, and that evening, his wife Elizabeth having retired to her bed, Henry removed himself to his study with a jug of beer and some Stilton cheese to watch re-runs of I Dream of Jeannie and later, with a hot chocolate and a biscuit, the CNN News Overnight.

Then there is this, starting with mousily pompous sociological observation and ending as if in the world of some ancient myth, or of Shakespearean comedy gone terribly wrong:

Given the strange and often troubled world of familial relations, and particularly those that take place in an isolated outer suburb such as M—, it is perhaps not very surprising that Ellana McLeod, the newsagent’s daughter, should end up marrying her brother.

Macauley’s work is dark and more than tinged with melancholy; it is also often wildly funny. Like Bail and Murnane, he is one of Australia’s deadpan visionaries, a teller of tall and cerebral tales.

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Other Stories
Cameron Woodhead, The Age, 23 October 2010 (The Age Pick of the Week)

Author of the acclaimed novels Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, Wayne Macauley is a compelling voice in contemporary Australian Literature. Other Stories, a collection of his short fiction, showcases his willingness to see - and interrogate - aspects of Australian culture that normally pass under the radar. Macauley is an excellent short-fiction writer; this volume a miscellany that grabs and gnaws on absurd threads of an experimental suburban dreaming. In ‘Bohemians,’ a real-estate agent employs decorative street artists to stand around, altering the atmosphere of a suburb in which they can no longer afford to live. ‘Wilson’s Friends’ is a parable that satirises the exploitation of young labour. ‘One Night’ sees a cul-de-sac in Keilor Heights invaded by people who decide to sleep outside on the road. Macauley is a spry and compassionate humorist of the postmodern soul. In lamenting the marginalisation of art from politics, he writes it back into the picture.

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Other Stories
Emmett Stinson
From 3RRR Breakfasters Show, 7 September 2010 (and  Emmett Stinson’s blog Known Unknowns, 7 September 2010)

[From Known Unknowns 2 September 2010: This week I picked up two books that I’m very excited about. The first is Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories, which I’ll be reviewing next week. I loved his first two novels (Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story), and this collection is even better (so far). He deserves a much wider readership, and I think he’s one of the finest writers in Australia right now. So buy it now! Yes, right now!]

Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories collects a variety of short fiction that he has published in literary magazines over the last eighteen (!!!) years.  Despite the work’s lengthy gestation, these stories demonstrate an impressive unity of vision, as well as an extraordinary—if uniquely Australian—voice. Macauley is also the author of two excellent novels, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, but, as good as his novels are, Other Stories reveals that he is an even better short story writer.

Macauley’s prose is absolutely beautiful, as the very first sentence of his collection proves: ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky?’ Here readers can already see Macauley’s humour, and how his stories twist everyday situations into strange, otherworldly experiences.

In this sense, Other Stories is an appropriate title for this eclectic, often experimental collection, but Macauley’s rigorous innovation is always inflected with mordant satire, resulting in work that is both affecting and hysterically funny. Consider the story ‘Bohemians’: here, a real-estate agent in a once-hip inner-Melbourne suburb faces a problem; local housing prices have skyrocketed to the point where artists and intellectuals can no longer afford to live there. The solution, of course, is to rent bohemians from a dealer; the entire story consists of a letter written by this bohemian-dealer in response to the real-estate agent. Many of his stories have similarly absurdist conceits; in ‘The Man Who Invented Television’, a man named Henry Walter invents the television set in Melbourne in 1855, and, in an even more unlikely turn of events, his TV broadcasts current programs, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show. In my favourite story, ‘The Bridge’, a soldier is stranded in a remote outpost and his claustrophobic circumstances recall Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

And this is what is interesting about Macauley’s work: although his formal experimentation might bear the influence of international writers like Beckett and Kafka, his work also suggests the local inheritance of Henry Lawson and Peter Carey’s early short stories. And Other Stories ultimately is a book that is uniquely and particularly Australian. Not only does the book possess a wry, laconic tone, but also figures from Australia’s cultural history are a signal fixation in Macauley’s work: Adam Lindsay Gordon, the dig tree, the inland sea and Melbourne’s trams all play a key role in these stories. In this sense, Other Stories presents an excellent model for a truly Australian literature. While its aesthetics are influenced by the great traditions of world literature, the content remains recognizably Australian.

Wayne Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture. This is one of the best books by an Australian I’ve read all year. Do yourself a favour and go buy it now.

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Verity La Interview with Wayne Macauley

The Possibilities of Wayne Macauley
Wayne Macauley interviewed by Alec Patric (author and poet)
25 October 2010

Alec Patric: I picked up your new collection, Other Stories, published recently by Black Pepper. In a word, superb. ‘Reply to a Letter’ might just be the great Australian novel boiled down to an essence. This kind of piece often leads to a backward looking perspective but there’s an open hearted dream of multiculturalism in the equally brilliant ‘One Night’ that drives us forward. In that second story you play with a powerful sense of nostalgia for a yet to be realised future. In both, there are subtle notes of surrealism, and though there are degrees of playfulness, your work pushes; it has urgency and relevance. And then I turned to your Acknowledgments page, and was stunned. You’ve won The Age short story competition for ‘Reply to a Letter’ and ‘One Night’ was published in Meanjin, which you’ve done a few times. In fact, the nineteen stories have been published in all of the very best literary journals in the country. So this seems a kind of greatest hits collection, not only of your work, but an anthology of the best writing in Australian literature over the last decade or more. Yet before picking up this superb collection, let me confess, I’d barely heard of you. This might suggest a degree of ignorance on my part but with the kind of continuous success you’ve had, I’d expect you to be at least as well known as writers like Cate Kennedy or Nam Le. I was hoping you might talk a little about writing for Australian literary journals for over a decade and why it has not brought you wider recognition.

Wayne Macauley: Thanks for your kind comments. As to the question of why I have not gained wider recognition for my work, this is on the one hand a very complicated and on the other a very easy question to answer. The easy answer is: I don’t know. You make the work, you put it out there, and hope it lights a spark. If it doesn’t, what can you do? The complicated answer is that every writer is unfortunately a victim of forces outside their control: the shifting moods and tastes of the public, the changing personnel and philosophies of big publishing houses, a contrary zeitgeist, blind luck, and so on. In my case I think I did have the misfortune to begin submitting my work at a time when big changes were happening in the Australian publishing industry. In fact, I would call that time, looking back on it, a very dark chapter in the history of Australian literary publishing. It was the time when economic rationalism began to rule, the big houses here became subsidiaries of head offices elsewhere, publishing was ‘rationalised’, lists cut, risks reduced. Poetry disappeared, as did (with some very rare exceptions) collections of short stories. (You still often hear the mantra from the big publishing houses now—‘Short story collections don’t sell’—proving again how received wisdom becomes a truth. Of course they won’t sell if you don’t want to sell ’em…) Throughout the 90s and well into 00s it was solely the literary magazines, plus a few small and dedicated alternative presses, that allowed a place for an alternative, fringe, experimental and/or political voice. That is, a different kind of Australian literature. My first novel, which ticks a few of the above boxes, did the rounds of and was rejected by all the main publishing houses during that time before it was picked up by Black Pepper and published in 2004. Of course the magazines were absolutely critical during this period in allowing me to explore and push my prose in the direction I wanted, free of any commercial constraints, and for that I am very grateful to them. But it has to be said this didn’t necessarily do anything for my ‘career’. It’s a cold hard truth, and one we might not like to acknowledge, but the fiction editors of big publishing houses probably don’t read Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Island, much less Going Down Swinging, Harvest, Page Seventeen, Kill Your Darlings or Wet Ink. The literary magazines are a training ground, a testing place—but a path to literary recognition? I’m not sure.

As for the main game, book publishing, thankfully these days things are changing and changing for the good. The lunatics are taking over the asylum. Like the massive changes wrought on the contemporary music industry over the past decade, a seismic shift is happening in publishing. The mainstream publishing industry has begun to devolve. A new generation is asserting itself, small presses and journals have begun to proliferate, and new modes of delivery are challenging the old ways. In every respect big publishing houses are going to have to re-invent themselves - big, lumbering publishing houses with big lumbering structures - while meanwhile those on the fringe have already done the reinventing. I think one of the great consequences of all this is that there will be a lot less of a rift between the new journals and literary blogs and book publishing as such. A serious, alternative publisher of literary fiction will now also read GDS and Verity La. And this has got to be a good thing. It was time for the old paradigm to be challenged.

Finally, at the end of it all, what is ‘recognition’? I am happiest when I am sitting in my study, writing. All the other stuff just becomes an annoyance in the end. I might have been recognised ‘earlier’, and as a human being my ego would have been stoked, but as a writer would it have done me any good?

Alec Patric: There’s a brand of satire you use in your writing that I find incisive and rewarding. There are elements of surrealism, which with most writers comes off as merely fanciful and often just kills a story for me. That’s not the case with your writing. The surrealism in your work has a political dimension that imbues it with gravity. But that brings us to the question of why there’s so little political or experimental fiction in Australian culture. I’m not suggesting we need a Dadaist style smashing of convention but there’s very little that even squirms in the envelope, let alone pushes the edges. Is there a conservative quality to Australian culture that cannot be opened up? You’ve mentioned retreating to your study but I wonder what you think about the roll writers play in other parts of the world as leading cultural agents and why this is not possible in Australia.

Wayne Macauley: Your question is a very broad one and I’m not sure I can answer it all. But I’ll give it a go. I think at the heart of it (I may be wrong) you are asking me about an element of my work that, as you suggest, ‘pushes the envelope’. So let me talk about that first.

In his essay ‘On Authorship and Style’, Schopenhauer said: ‘the first rule of a good style is that an author should have something to say’. I spent a lot of years (my twenties and early thirties), before writing the works that would eventually become the pieces collected in Other Stories, doing little else but reading and thinking. I kept a writer’s journal throughout this time (I still do, though not quite so assiduously), in which I wrote down my thoughts on what I’d read, quotes worth keeping and sometimes the beginnings of prose pieces inspired by an idea in one of these quotes. I say idea, and this is important. I wasn’t observing the world and writing down what I saw, I was observing the world through the prism of the ideas I’d got from my reading. I guess in some ways I was looking for evidence of these grand (generally European) ideas in my own backyard, or, more precisely, in the streets of suburban Melbourne. Sometimes I found the evidence I was looking for: Heraclitus’ ‘all is flux’, Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘despair of possibility’,  Plato’s ‘becoming and never being’, Schopenhauer’s ‘human existence must be some kind of error’. After a couple of pots on a Saturday night in a pub in Glen Waverly it was very easy to understand what Nietzsche meant when he said ‘man is absolutely not the crown of creation’.

As you can probably guess, most of my reading throughout this time was philosophy (my fiction diet was almost exclusively second-hand Penguin classics). This wasn’t because of any formal course of study I was doing (I don’t have a tertiary degree) but because I wanted to understand why I was here and, now that I was, what exactly I should be doing. The world already looked strange to me; I wanted to understand why. I believe there are two layers of reality: the one we see, which realist fiction describes, and the one we find when we look, which I guess is what ‘other’ fiction covers. A couple of weeks ago I read something that relates to this in a book of essays by Kundera: ‘The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it…’. I agree with this sentiment, which perhaps explains why my surrealism, as you call it, doesn’t, as you suggest, seem forced. (I don’t see it as surrealism, a realism ‘above’ or beyond a common reality, to me it is the realism inside it.)

Now to the difficult part of your question which asks (to paraphrase): Yes, but what does all this mean to one living in Lotus Land drinking cold beer and swatting the flies off the meat?

When Socrates drank his hemlock he died for an idea. I can’t yet see an Australian writer dying for an idea, but perhaps that’s only because we’ve had no occasion to, yet. You have to remember this culture we’re talking about (white, European-derived culture) is only two hundred years old. Our relationship to most other (read European) cultures is still that of a small child: looking up in awe for approval, smiling when we get it, bawling when we don’t. When you talk about a ‘conservatism’ in Australian culture, though, I presume you are talking about literary culture. The contemporary visual arts scene for example is anything but conservative, the contemporary music scene likewise, the architecture scene is as alive as a scene can get, the contemporary theatre scene, which I myself have been involved in, takes way more risks than I ever see in contemporary literature. No, we have a very conservative literature, protected by very conservative gatekeepers. Somewhere along the line (the early 90s) a white surrender flag was put up about what ‘Australian literature’ is. Carey had done his ‘Fat Man…’, Bail his ‘Contemporary Portraits…’ - and that’s quite enough experimentation for us now thankyou very much. Since then I think the main object of Australian literary publishing has been to shore up what 80s-defined Australian literature was. Why change the tyres when the car’s running fine?

There is no such thing as a definitive ‘Australian film’, a definitive ‘Australian theatre’, a definitive ‘Australian sound’, God forbid a definitive ‘Australian literature’. We’re a baby. Nothing’s defined. We’re still making it up. And we’ll be making it up for centuries yet. This, for me, is what is exciting (as opposed to frustrating) about being an Australian artist—and I hope one day it will be seen that way for the gatekeepers too. There are no rules, other than the ones we write. Everything is possibility.

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Launch Speech

The Genius of Wayne Macauley

This book isn’t just a good collection of short stories; it’s an exceptional work of Australian literature
Emmett Stinson

Emmett Stinson (short story writer, academic and publisher)
also available on the Known Unknowns literary blog
26 October 2010, North Fitzroy Arms

Dorothy Porter photo

Tonight I have the enviable honour of launching Wayne Macauley’s new book, Other Stories. I’m excited to speak about that, but, before doing so, I’m going to begin with a brief anecdote, as launchers of books are so often wont to do.

Several years ago I was up very late one evening trying to finish reading submissions for Wet Ink: The Magazine of New Writing in order to meet an impending deadline. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of reading unsolicited fiction manuscripts, this might sound like not such a bad gig. Those of you who have, though, know it’s quite a different story: we get several hundred submissions for each one of our four yearly issues, and if I had to identify any quality that would characterise most unsolicited submissions for literary magazines, it would certainly be that they are almost uniformly not very good.

I’m not saying this to attack those kind enough to send their work to Wet Ink or anywhere else—I’m certainly grateful to have the opportunity to read these writers’ work—but given that the vast majority of those sending in their writing are emerging authors still honing their craft, as well as my own peculiar editorial sensibilities, reading through cold submissions can often feel more like an endurance test than an aesthetic experience, especially at around three in the morning.

My reading that night wasn’t going particularly well: I’d just had a run of about ten stories in which authors had included the words ‘The End’ at the end of their stories (a note to would-be authors, I can tell when your story ends by the fact that there aren’t any more words). Then there were another five where the writers listed their name at the bottom of each page followed by the copyright symbol and the year (another note to neophyte authors: even if anyone did want to steal your story—which, by the way, no-one does—that little copyright symbol won’t stop them). After wading through many more run-of-the-mill submissions, I then read a story that inexplicably detailed a very sincere and passionate sexual relationship between a human being and a wallaby. At this point, I could feel despair setting in.

And no doubt it would have, had I not read the next story, called ‘The Loaded Pig’, a brilliant, brutal satire based on Henry Lawson’s ‘The Loaded Dog’ about some despicable men engaging in a despicable occupation which the opening lines described: ‘We were digging way out there in the middle of nowhere looking for blackfella bones that we’d heard were somewhere around there and which we knew we could get good money for—you can get good money for blackfella bones so long as you know where to look.’ The story itself went on to offer an acerbically funny and surreal vision of the slow death of rural Australia and the brutality of our colonial past.

After finishing this story, I knew that I was in the presence of a phenomenal authorial voice and of, I believe, a great author, who was, of course, Wayne Macauley. Of all the many great stories Wet Ink has been lucky enough to print—and there are many—Wayne’s remains the one that I’m most personally proud of publishing. I’ll also note this: shortly after its publication I sent Wayne a brief email telling him how much I liked it, and he responded with the following: ‘“The Loaded Pig” was rejected seven times before it landed on your desk. This says either (a) the story is bad and you’re a fool or (b) the traditional literary magazine circuit in Australia is suffering from a serious failure of nerve. I wonder which one it is?’

There’s one slight problem in opening my talk with this anecdote, however. ‘The Loaded Pig’ isn’t actually in Wayne’s new collection, Other Stories; nonetheless, it’s good to know that Wayne has other stories beyond those in Other Stories. But there’s even more good news here: you won’t miss it, because this is a book filled with wonderful short fiction, and reading it produced the exact same feeling I got on that night many years ago.

Consider the story ‘Bohemians’: here, a real-estate agent in a once-hip inner-Melbourne suburb faces a problem; local housing prices have skyrocketed to the point where artists and intellectuals can no longer afford to live there. The solution, of course, is to rent bohemians from a dealer; the entire story consists of a letter written by this bohemian-dealer in response to the real-estate agent, and opens by saying, ‘Do I have bohemians? Of course I have bohemians, Matt, but probably not in the quantities you require.’ (If you haven’t worked it out by now, Macauley arguably writes better first lines to short stories than almost any other writer in Australia).

The book is filled with other stories like this, all of which are funny and wonderfully odd: in ‘The Man Who Invented Television’, a Melbourne man named Henry Walter invents the television in 1855, which, of course, plays contemporary American TV programs. In ‘Simpson and His Donkey Go Looking for the Inland Sea’, we hear about—who else—but Simpson and His Donkey, who have been looking for the inland sea for 94 years. These stories view the world through a satirical and often surreal lens that attempts to present what we accept as ‘reality’ as something very different indeed; in this sense they are truly Other Stories.

But this is a book that isn’t just quirky or inventive; in my opinion, it’s a serious contribution to Australian literature. In September, I reviewed Other Stories on Triple R, and part of my review sums up my feelings about the book pretty well, so I will be lazy and simply read out what I wrote then: ‘although [Macauley’s] formal experimentation might bear the influence of international writers like Beckett and Kafka, his work also suggests the local inheritance of Henry Lawson and Peter Carey’s early short stories... figures from Australia’s cultural history are a signal fixation in Macauley’s work, [including] Adam Lindsay Gordon, the dig tree, the inland sea and Melbourne’s trams... While [Macauley’s] aesthetics are influenced by the great traditions of world literature, the content remains recognizably Australian.’

And this is a particularly important point in the contemporary landscape, I think. If you just went by the broadsheets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only two short story writers in contemporary Australia. And while I have nothing against those authors and think their writing is of a high quality, I do think that the contemporary Australian idea of what a short story is suggests a pretty limited cultural imaginary. Thankfully, though there are always Other Stories—and this, obviously, is part of the point of Wayne’s title. This is brave and powerful writing that seeks to do something more than simply reinforce what we already believe or serve as just another bourgeois entertainment. These stories present an alternative—an otherness—that Australian literature desperately needs.

The other day, an interview with Wayne was posted by the online journal Verity La in which its editor, Alec Patrick, lead off with what I think is a most unusual question: in a roundabout way, after noting all of the awards that Wayne has won and all the places where his fiction has been published, Alec basically asked Wayne why he isn’t better known. It’s a sort of wonderfully naïve question; Alec may as well have asked Wayne why he isn’t taller or why he doesn’t have six arms. Wayne, of course, has already indirectly addressed the odd workings of literary recognition himself in Other Stories’ final tale about Adam Lindsay Gordon and his suicide in the face of both poverty and obscurity. But I don’t think Alec’s question is so absurd, and in fact I would challenge anyone in this room to read Other Stories and not find themselves asking the same question.

Let me offer you some proof in the form of the very first sentence of Other Stories, which begins like this: ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky?’ To ask a question of my own, who wouldn’t want to read a book that opens like this? This book isn’t just a good collection of short stories; it’s an exceptional work of Australian literature. Those already familiar with Wayne’s first two books, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, know what an exceptional writer he is; if anything Other Stories—which presents stories that Wayne has published over the last two decades—is even better.

In my Triple R review, I ultimately made what is possibly a pretty big claim about both Wayne and his work. Here’s what I said: ‘Wayne Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture.’ I stand by that statement, and I believe that anyone who reads Wayne’s three books will come to the same conclusions that I have: even though I’ve been up here talking about it for some time now, I think Wayne’s work speaks for itself. It’s my hope that, by hook or by crook, Other Stories gets the recognition that it deserves. And, for those of you who are bored by the kind of short stories that currently get passed off as ‘serious contemporary literature’, I have a quick fix for you: it’s time to put those books down and read some Other Stories instead.

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