Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tiger, Tiger

it's a bit of a rambling post this week. Nothing hilariously funny and shoe-related happened to me. (See previous post.)

After formerly expressing profound doubts I hjave about the quality of my current novel, The Silence of Tigers, to be published by Penguin early next year, I have now decided I like it again. I’m doing a ‘pass’ over the first draft, just to make sure the characters’ names are spelled the same way throughout, and  I haven’t committed any howlers involving bad grammar, bad choice of words and just general badness.

The reason I disliked the novel was that I really hadn’t visited it again since my stroke, and was more or less under the impression that everything I’ve been writing lately must be terrible. The book has a plot that’s embasrrassingly simple and old fashioned – boy-gets-girl, boy-loses girl, boy gets back girl by showing extraordinary strength, kindness or magic, or thermo-dynamics or whatever. There are my trademark explosions. The book will annoy some people, I think, because it examines the theme of comedy and how we are both united and divided by it.  This means I have had to include examples of jokes in their many forms. What I find funny, you may not, and yet you will insist that you have a sense of humour, in the same way that I defend mine. I did mention in my last post that the title ‘The Silence of Tigers’ is far too poetic and would be changed. For the time being the book will be known as The Best Joke in the World, which shows hubris on my part, as I know that critics just love to attack comedies. (Particularly if you're promising something pretty funny, such as 'the best joke in the world'. There was a famous TV critic, tragically no longer with us, who would just itch to savage any new comedy that came to Australia’s TV screens. His name was Ross Warrneke, and his vitriol became so inevitable, that I stopped sending him preview copies of new shows I had made. This naturally made him angry and he went out of his way to watch the show as it went to air. He then did what many critics do when they feel like savaging a comedy. He quoted jokes entirely out of context and challenged the reader to find them funny.  The best jokes in the world can be made to appear lame, if you don’t quote them correctly, or you quote the setup but not the tag, or vice versa.  One of Warrneke’s more surreal pronouncements involved the early Kath and Kim shows, which were gaining quite a following. He refused to budge from his view that the show was awful, and that’s fair enough. The man was entitled to an opinion, after all, and was indeed paid for it. But the most bizarre thing he wrote was a piece where he blamed newspapers for elevating the show’s status by overpraising, such as trumpeting that two and a half million Australians had watched one of the episodes, which was apparently some kind of record, but Mr Warrneke was surreal enough to remind readers that this meant  17,500,000 Australians hadn’t watched the episode. Mr Warrneke is missed by many, and there was a good turn-out for his funeral. About 250 Australians attended, quite an impressive number. Mind you, this means that 19,999,750 Australians didn’t attend. It’s all a matter of perspective, you see.

 Amazingly, whole episodes of the some of those comedies I produced at the end of the eighties are appearing on YouTube. It looks a bit jaded after all these years, but I still find Kim Gyngell's performance terrifically funny. We made the show for next to nothing. Unfortunately, it shows. I don't know how you managed to get these, Stig, but well done. Anyone who has the staying power to last till the end of the episode will see the first use of CGI ever in an Australian sitcom. It cost us a thousand bucks to make the penguin wink. It was a hell of a lot of money for such a little bit of CGI, but I was the producer - see, that's my name at the top of the show - and I decided that the show really needed a stronger tagline, hence the CGI bit. Hell, it was channel Ten's money and I didn't like them very much.

But enough about TV. Going back to the original title of the book, The Silence of Tigers, it is actually relevant to an incident in the book, but I had to tweak that incident just enough to make the title work. And the title was born when I gave a talk about comedy books at The Wheeler Centre. I mentioned the Vonnegut classic, The Sirens of Titan, thought by many, myself included, to be a comedy science fiction classic. Certainly, Douglas Adams was a fan and he seemed to have a pretty good grasp of what was funny. After my speech, a lady came up to me and asked me if she’d written down the title correctly, because it seemed a bit odd. What she had written was The Silence of Tigers, which is apparently what it sounded like when I said The Sirens of Titan, with my temporary speech impediment.. It struck me that this was a very beautiful title, and I was surprised to find that it fitted my current manuscript quite well. There are actually two tigers in it, but the don’t feature centre stage like Richard Parker in The Life of Pi.

Another great rough cover idea, though, sadly, no longer  relevant to the book.

Amy Thomas,  my new editor, probably anticipated some puzzled rumblings from Penguin’s marketing division, and politely gave me a suggestion list of alternative titles. They were good, and some of them even retained the reference to tigers, but none really grabbed me. So, for the moment we’re calling the book The Best Joke in the World, and keeping our fingers crossed that Mr Warrneke doesn’t rise from the grave. Anyway, I quite like the book now. It won’t make any shortlists, because it isn’t that sort of book.  It sets out to amuse, which is hardly a very lofty ideal and pretty much guarantees being passed over by the gatekeepers, but we don’t write to be featured on shortlists, although of course it’s lovely when it happens. Having written and published about a novel a year since I left full-time TV work in 2002, and having never featured on a shortlist of any kind, it was my firm pronouncement when I handed Penguin the manuscript of The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher that I had made a book that was quite incapable of being included on any prize lists at all. I was utterly gobsmacked when it appeared on two shortlists, and even got an ‘Honour’ in The Australian Children’s Book Council awards. Suddenly the universe had changed. The Shiny Guys, my last book, also managed a decent showing in the shortlist stakes; it’s a weird book, certainly not classic ‘shortlist’ material, but I think it was considered ‘worthy’; by some people, because it was funny, but about clinical depression. (At least I knew my subject quite well.) It seemed the best way to make the shortlists was not to try to write something that you might consider to be suitable shortlist fodder. So, who knows? Maybe a book called The Best Joke in the World might end up on someoine’s shoretlist, even if it’s just Books I wish I could unread to give me the time to read something that’s actually good.

While we can pronounce shortlists as ‘unimportant’ that is, of course, hooey.  We writers rely on this sort of attention for sales. A nod from the ACBC immediately guarantees a reprint as every school library in Australia does its darndest to obtain a copy. A shortlisting doesn’t just bump up royalties, it means that PLR/ELR, the annual grant that all Australian writers receive as compensation for books unsold owing to library purchases, goes up. This is an immensely important stipend, and without it many authors would find life much tougher. We also get money from the copyright agency, as reimbursement for our works that are photocopied. Gradually, provided you can remain in print, it becomes possible to make a living as an author. It’s not a terribly glamorous living, but it’s not as if I  am performing a vital function in writing books about tigers and jokes. Although I must say I’m glad that when I was a kid I could read Australian novels by Mavis Thorpe Clark or Ivan Southall or Patricia Wrightson.  Mavis Thorpe Clark even wrote a book about where I grew up in Gippsland in Blue Above the Trees. It was wonderful to be able to read about a landscape I knew, and I’ll never forget the bit about the burning, where our principal characters stand at the outskirts of a forest fire and are suddenly crawling with waves of huntsman spiders, desperately escaping the inferno. Images like that don’t die easily. I hope we can say the same for the Aussie book industry.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re-reading tales of a teenage body snatcher, how absolutely brilliant Doug Macleod is now my favourite author, I can't wait to read his other books if they are as good as body snatcher.

Michael Monroe