Rising above the carping of critics my own personal Everest
HAVING just been on the end of a less than ecstatic review of our political-sexual satire Fools’ Paradise, a friend reminded my co-author, Trevor Jordan, and myself of a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde.
The great playwright and poet allegedly opined that: “The artist’s opinion of the critic is rather like that of a telegraph pole’s opinion of a dog.”
Whether Wilde said this or not, it got me thinking about how best, as a writer, to deal with criticism. As those who know me know, my rule of thumb, and my almost universal strategy, is to never respond to negativity. That is to say, to let any criticism swiftly pass through to the wicket-keeper.
Yet I’m reminded that some 25 years ago, in The Age, a humourless feminist panned my first Grafton Everest novel, ‘Pushed From the Wings’, by claiming: “I never laughed once.”
Instead of taking this to heart and getting down in the dumps, I turned this statement on its head.
Hence in the Corgi Bantam overseas editions of ‘Pushed From the Wings’ and ‘All About Anthrax’, both of which sold well in Britain and South Africa, we featured this quote on the books’ back cover and also under “Acclaim”.
Being a writer, even in Australia, sometimes places a chap in the spotlight. Recently, when I was walking my dog though Sydney’s Moore Park, an elderly woman stopped me and said: ‘Are you the author Ross Fitzgerald?” When I answered, “Yes”, she responded: “You look much better on the television!” A few months before that, a middle-aged couple asked me the same question at Turramurra. After I agreed that I was indeed me, the bloke responded: “We love your histories and your columns (in The Weekend Australian). But it must be terrible having the same name as that fellow who writes those dreadful novels!”
What else could I do but nod as I walked past and agree?
While on the subject of Turramurra, I’m reminded of Steve, my long-time sober friend in Alcoholics Anonymous, who once lived in that august suburb. Steve, who cut off his little finger to get insurance money to pay for the booze, often used to say he didn’t think anyone could be an alcoholic if they could say the word Turramurra, let alone live there.
Sometimes, as writers, we also receive undeserved praise, as well as criticism. Years ago a reviewer praised my cleverness in coining Grafton Everest as the name for my huge and bumbling leading character. Obviously, said the critic, this evocative title is clearly meant to conjure up the notions of Graft and Avarice . For years, I have been only too pleased to bask in this mild glory.
But now, I have decided, it’s time to come clean.
The truth is that in early 1975, with a former student from the University of NSW, where I had just finished my PhD, we crossed the Swaziland border into Mozambique where the Frelimo revolution to oust the Portuguese was in its final swing. Jonnie Sheens and I seemed to be the only Europeans driving into Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). Just as we reached the border crossing, a huge furniture van, headed for Swaziland and South Africa, thundered by. On its side was written GRAFTON EVEREST REMOVALS. Then and there I decided to use the name for my shambling anti-hero, a moniker that also seemed evocative of Grafton’s terrifying mother, Avis, who although never actually present in ‘Pushed From the Wings’, is a hugely forbidding presence above and behind the plotline, rather like Mt Everest itself.
While at the border post I asked a guard, “What’s it like now that the Portuguese are gone?” He responded, “It’s the same pile of manure, only the flies are different.” Years later, in another Grafton Everest novel, ‘Busy in the Fog’, I attributed this pithy phrase to Grafton’s publisher, who, after a time of trial and tribulation, had just taken over the still beleaguered university press.
Back to critics, I am reminded of the first time that I walked into the offices of Faber & Faber in London. There on the wall was a large quote from the British modernist poet Basil Bunting: THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR CRITICISM! Whether or not it’s still there I’m unsure, but it’s a phrase I’ve never forgotten and with which many authors would undoubtedly agree.
But perhaps even more writers would appreciate another quote about critics attributed to Wilde: “I never read a book I must review,” he said. “It prejudices one so.”
Ross Fitzgerald has written 35 books, most recently the co-authored ‘ Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State’, published by PressOn/Arcadia in Melbourne and his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: an Alcoholic’s Journey’, published by New South Books in Sydney.
The Weekend Australian November 5 -6, 2011