In the past six months, I have slept with more than 160 women. I know: impressive. But I really have. I agreed to be a judge for the Stella Prize – the $50,000 literary award for Australian female writers – and at some point, I suspect just after I signed up, it became clear that this would involve me reading more than 160 books.
So in the past six months I have fallen asleep with my face in biographies, historical adaptations and with bold new voices in fiction lending brilliantly moving and tautly compelling narratives to my dreams. I have curled up with feminist polemics and graphic novels. My bedside table is a tottering tribute to my promiscuity. For months I read and read and read, with an appetite verging on the goatish; on buses, in traffic-stalled taxis, walking along the street, cooking dinner. But at some point each night, usually with my forefinger marking the page and the bedside lamp lightly tanning my eyelids, I inevitably dropped off.
I have learnt many things. I have learnt, for instance, that the very best thing about reading a great book is the same as the very worst thing about reading a bad book: the deep and unshakeable secret suspicion that perhaps if I wrote a book, it would turn out like this one.
When you read as normal human beings read, you are guided by all sorts of unseen forces. You choose things you think you’ll like. You avoid things you just know you’re going to hate. You read things you have to read. And necessarily, it means that you miss out. Increasingly, in recent decades, I have read for business rather than specifically for pleasure. The stack of porky political memoirs, essays, economic treatises, biographies, forensic accounts of the rise of this person and the fall of that one never seems to get any smaller. I should read them all, and I try to, so reading anything outside of politics has over the years – and this has got worse with every baby – started to feel like an indulgence. So I cut back on all those other genres: fiction, fantasy, exercise and diet books, self-help, horror and travel writing. Apart from, of course, Bob Carr’s memoir, which is – happily – all of those things.
So when I signed up for Stella, it was with the inexpressibly sick strategy that if I turned the reading of other books into an actual obligation, I could then enjoy them guilt-free. And it worked like a charm.
Reading as a judge is a completely different sort of experience. Instead of picking your own weird little goat track through the books published in any given year, all of a sudden you’re reading all of them, or at any rate all the ones written by women. This gives you a perspective unavailable to anyone else, apart from a tiny slice of the OCD community and a hardy band of retired English teachers.
All of a sudden, you start to see patterns. There’s the rash of “Every Mother’s Nightmare” books, for which I blame Lionel Shriver, whose 2003 bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin had a separate, but equally stimulatory effect on newspaper headline writers during the Rudd era of government. Then there is a strong contingent of emotionally knotty adventures set in exotic, Third World or geographically distant climes. I blame the artificially depressed price of international airline travel for these, plus the ghostly hand of Michelle de Kretser, who in her Miles Franklin winner Questions of Travel last year did what countless thousands of Australians before her have impotently aspired to do, which is to write a superb novel about backpacking. I am reminded of 1992, when Andrew McGahan’s Praise won the Vogel, and everyone I knew at university – myself included – sat down to write our own gritty works incorporating filthy share houses, doomed love affairs and stoned misadventures. I would like to express my sympathy for any Vogel judge subsequently forced to surf that derivative wave of dirty realism.
Folded inside every great novel are the countless spores of its illegitimate children; now there’s a depressing thought.
The best thing, though, was finding some truly spectacular books and knowing that sticking them on the Stella short list would be like sneaking them on to the bedside tables of a vast new group of readers. The winner, Clare Wright, spent 10 years writing a new history of the Eureka Stockade, with all the women put back in. A more pulse-racing work of history than The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka I have not read, and to give people a little push towards it made me feel like Father Christmas. That’s the beating heart of the Stella Prize; it’s a bid not to create quality, but to remind you, by means of a discreet little bookshop cough, where you might easily find it.
We all need a little push.
Annabel Crabb is the host of ABC TV’s Kitchen Cabinet, airing Fridays at 8pm.