Wednesday, 11 June 2014

'What's the creator of damo and darren up to now?'

NOTE: Since Bullshit Blog is now defunct, I've taken the liberty of reposting the original article in full here.

The cool kids at Bullshit Blog were kind enough to publish my first web article! It's a short introduction to 'Lucas the Magnificent', a parody persona crafted by the genius behind Damo and Darren. Go check it out!

And just some background, in case you're interested: I usually do this thing where, instead of building my writing CV up by putting my time and effort into articles that can be published on actual websites, I just occasionally waste an entire day writing three thousand–word diatribes to languish here unread because this is an obscure blog and no one would ever want to read a random,  unstructured, meandering three thousand–word diatribe that contains all the opinions I could possibly ever express on one topic. (And yes, that was all one sentence).

The last couple times I've started writing a blog post I've thought to myself, 'Wait a second. Is there anywhere else I could publish this? Should I be pitching somewhere instead?' But then I always talk myself out of it by thinking I don't want to restrain myself to the extent necessary for a published article, or no one would be interested in the topic I'm talking about enough to publish it, or whatever. 

But this time, when I saw Lucas The Magnificent pop up in my feed and spent the next hour reading every tweet and post he'd ever made, I realised it would be the perfect subject for one of those little link repository articles you see on pop culture websites, so I scrambled down a couple hundred words, and here we are! Next objective: publish a serious article somewhere ...

Thanks for reading


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Rosie, queen of the streets

Tuesday 20 May 2014

In my post 'The worst kind of emergency' I wrote about the importance of giving. One of the ways I've been doing that for the last couple of years has been working with photographer Ethan Mann on a charity project for Sydney's homeless, 'The X Book'. It's a compilation of portraits featuring Sydney personalities accompanied by biographies and it's been a Herculean task, strung together on favours and distant connections during spare moments in the busy lives of some of our participants. Now we have an opportunity to gain some funding and exposure through Canon's 'Shine' initiative.

Click the image to vote for us (if it doesn't take you directly to the picture just select 'Leaderboard' from the 'Sort by' dropdown menu on the top-left and look for Rosie at the top)!

Meet Aunty Rose, 'queen of the streets', a familiar and friendly face to many in the heart of our city. So many people have connected with Rosie, but few like Ethan. On a stormy night in 2012 he took his mission to help the homeless to the next level when he set out to spend two weeks sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney to try and gain an understanding of this way of life. But we who live in the comfort and warmth of our homes have lost touch with the survival instincts it takes to navigate such a wild and difficult lifestyle. He would've been lost if it weren't for Rosie, the angel who took him under her wing when he brought his obsession into her world.

Rosie is a beautiful and wise old soul who made the streets her home after the deaths of her family two decades ago. She's got equal parts book smarts and street smarts, and a hearty dose of kindness that makes her willing to impart her knowledge, her time, and even her money, to anyone in need. She taught Ethan where to eat, showed him the safe places to sleep, gave him a handful of change when he had nothing, and schooled him in the vital practice of 'cold-biting' (what the rest of us might call 'begging') so he could make it on his own. Without her hr wouldn't have even the beginnings of understanding that he has now, so when he heard about the Canon Shine initiative, it was an easy choice which photo he wanted to submit.

The competition is all about reminding us of the power of photographs to effect change in a world where selfies, food shots and Snapchats might seem to water it down, so of course The X Book had to get involved. We submitted a mugshot-style portrait of Rosie that depicts how the stories of the homeless are sentenced without trial to silence, how their complexities are flattened into tales of guilt so we can justify ignoring an outstretched hand.

The winner will have the benefit of all the considerable exposure Canon can offer when they make a documentary about the journey that led to the picture being taken. This is a story that needs to be told. If you believe in us and you believe in our cause, please get behind us now so we have the best chance of winning the competition, getting our story out, and making a difference to the lives of our city's most vulnerable.

Vote for our image by clicking on the photo above, and share this page far and wide. Alternatively you can send me your name and email and I wil register you. Once you verify the account by clicking on the link in the email they send you, you can vote from there, or just let me know and I will vote on your behalf! There's links on my Facebook and Twitter pages (see below) for you to like and share and retweet to your heart's content. 

Thanks for reading


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Little garie and the hidden shack communities of sydney's royal national park

Tuesday 22 April 2014

For someone whose entire life can be characterised by migration back and forth between Wollongong and the Sutherland Shire, the obstacle that separates these two places, Sydney's vast Royal National Park, is a constant presence. In my nearly twenty-five years I've made the move on no less than five occasions, each time leaving behind friends and family who needed visiting, so I must've taken the hour-long journey around and through the park, by car or by train, thousands of times.

In the original sense of the word, then, the park has been geographically pivotal for me: the central point around which my whole life has swung. So in the spirit of 'writing what you know', this 16,000-hectare conservation area seemed the perfect space in which to hide the hermit protagonist of my inchoate novel 'The Innocuous Death of Irving Crabbe'. It wasn't until I was voicing this idea to my nan, though, that I was informed of the extraordinary fact that the world's second-oldest national park already secretes within its depths a handful of isolated shack communities.

But apparently I wasn't alone. Surprisingly few locals, whether Shirefolk or Wollongongers, seem to be aware of the four micro-communities of Little Garie, Era, Burning Palms and Bulgo, each accessible only by walking track, which have been established in the park now for over a century. It only took a little investigation to reach the conclusion that I needed to incorporate these idiosyncratic little colonies into my book in some way. I was sold.

And so it is that at 10am on an inclement Sunday, just over a year after that initial discovery, I find myself on the wind-blown grass of Garie Beach in the heart of the National Park, accompanied by a fittingly representative mix of friends and family from both its Sydney and Wollongong ends. My nan brings three other family members from the south, while high school friends and fellow Sydneysiders Charlene and Alexandra (who accompanied me on my first excursion to the communities a year earlier) drive in with me from the north. They have all kindly agreed to join me for the annual National Heritage Trust Festival walking tour of Little Garie (the most accessible of the four communities and therefore the only tour not to have been cancelled due to the weather), where I'm hoping to learn more about the lives and history of the shackdwellers.

The glorious view from Garie Beach on our previous (much more temperate) visit.

We huddle against the wind and I make my introductions as my filial and social worlds collide, milling about a picnic table while we wait for all the attendees to arrive. We are surprised by how many people show up, perhaps a couple dozen: active middle-aged couples in hiking gear, a young migrant family with an adorable baby, and the various other pleasant, solitary grey-haired oddballs you find at such events, enthusing politely and asking earnest questions like garrulous mature-age students at uni. My friends and I are conspicuously the youngest adults there, later earning us the moniker of 'the young ones' from the event coordinator Kerry, who soon makes herself known and leads us on a narrow path towards Little Garie nestled between the cliffs on one side and the beach on the other.

Family: Nan, Eddie, and great aunt and uncle Christine and Stewart bringing up the rear. The 'most accessible' though it is, all the materials that comprise and fill the shacks of Little Garie would have to have been carried along this narrow path, including the heavy old kerosene fridges and cast-iron fireplaces.

The view from the track, with the rocky plateau where the shackholders meet for elevensies in the foreground and some of the Little Garie shacks beyond.

Warm and quick to laugh, Kerry strikes me over the course of the day as the most socially conscious of the guides, trying visibly to keep speeches from her fellow guides on track, forewarning us of the more notoriously loquacious shackholders and hurrying along any groups that linger too long in any one dwelling. She guides us up a steep hill, which she assures us is the only one we will need to contend with, to the characterful Little Garie community hall and chapel, where we are to meet the rest of the guides and residents: Tim, Peter, James, Gary, Tony and more. I didn't take any photos on this occasion, but I did take some during the 2013 visit:

Kids playing with a kart outside the hall.

In the hall we learn that the first shacks in the area were holiday cabins built from 1910 onwards on land rented from the owners, forty years before its incorporation into the National Park. Later during the Depression, the communities swelled as unemployed miners from nearby Helensburgh moved into the area. Once the land was resumed in 1950 after lobbying from the shackowners to protect it from property developers, no new shacks were permitted to be built. The existing shacks could, however, still be bought and sold until the mid-1960s when the land came under the governance of the newly formed National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), whose policy was to remove the shacks once their owners died. This led many families to just continue paying rent under the pretense that their deceased relative was now a decagenarian. Nevertheless, the NPWS succeeded in demolishing around 50 shacks during this time. Apparently the removal of the shacks ranked in the top two things former NSW premier Bob Carr wanted to get rid of during his time in office, during the same time heritage authorities were clamouring to protect them.

Today the shackholders are council workers, medicos, PhDs, engineers, sugarcane farmers, coal miners and all manner of other professions. Indeed, one of the most distinctive shacks we would see, brimming full of fantasy novels and half built of stones that leak when it rains, is cared for by a kindly Woolooware High School science teacher/archaeologist/Egyptologist. Each shackholder pays circa $3,000 a year in rent, and they are entitled to have up to four names on their leases. Very few of them live in the shacks fulltime, but they visit frequently on weekends and stay for long periods over summer and during winter holidays. The custodians of such a prized coastal idyll might be expected to guard their closed community jealously against outsiders, but the open day shows their attitudes to be the opposite. In fact, it is due to their efforts to the contrary, largely exercised through the Royal National Park Coastal Cabins Protection League (RNPCCPL), that the NPWS' policy of shack removal has latterly been overturned. The communities' demonstration and celebration of their unique cultural heritage has led to its recognition by several various heritage authorities, and the open day itself, we are told by bright, eloquent RNPCCPL president Helen Voysey, commemorates the listing of the communities on the State Heritage Register in 2012.

The promulgation of the shack communities' culture being one of the goals of the day, the shackholders are eager to impress upon us the importance of the shacks in their lives. 'We're very heartfelt. These aren't just some place we come and have fun, stresses Kerry. 'These are a part of our structure, our DNA.' She also emphasises the intimacy of the Little Garie community, noted among the four for its closeness, citing how quickly secrets spread among the shackholders, and their daily ritual of elevensies. Another community member adds that there are regularly five generations in a shack, and Helen concludes that 'Heritage is not just your big stone buildings and your government houses; it's your little shacks where people survived the Great Depression and where people carry on a kind of holiday recreation life.'

Another point to which the shackholders continually return is the effort involved in maintaining their seaside escapes. Possessed perhaps of an ingrained sensitivity from the parlous state in which the shacks existed for such a long time, they seem to want to prove that it's not all just the bucolic retreat and pleasant weekends surfing and fishing in the sun that visitors might think, that it's not only through the luck of birth or marriage that they come to enjoy their shacks, but that they have earned the privilege through their hard work preserving and maintaining them. Peter characterises the task as a fulltime job, battling the wind, storms, and vandalism. Their $3,000 a year is the price for the location alone; it doesn't buy them the amenities, roads, pathways, infrastructure the ordinary taxpayer expects, nor the community services ratepayers enjoy, nor the upkeep on which ordinary renters can depend. The shackholders seem to do most of this themselves. They constructed the stairway we trudged up to reach the hall, Kerry told us, when the NPWS wouldn't pay for it and visitors kept injuring themselves. My friends and I happened to be there that day on our previous trip as the men sweated, heaving rocks up from the river to sink into the earth as platforms to stand on. I even recognise some of the shackholders in the hall as the smiling faces of people who greeted us and wished us well as we passed through that day, giggling in their swimmers with champagne glasses in their hands.

One of the shackholders carries a stone up the hill to use in the construction of the stairs.

Throughout the day we would be regaled with such tales of the shackholders' diligent ingenuity and resilience, from the construction of the stone shack from boulders rolled down from the hills above to its more recent repair when the roof blew off in one piece. Fences have been erected to prevent rockfalls and protect and hold back plant species. Days have been spent clearing the brush of the decades worth of shattered glass from the beer bottles of the shackholders' antecedents. An agreement was made for the community to take over the upkeep of any shack whose owner grew too old to maintain it themselves. And then there is the shacks' most persistent enemy: whiteants.

Some of the shackowners of years past were more creative in their bottle disposal methods. Each of these show their brewing year on their base, some dating back to the forties and fifties.

We are informed the floor we are standing on in the hall has just been replaced for fear that it wouldn't hold up underneath us after whiteants (or termites) had been at it. The first shack we are led to in our smaller group, in fact, is a thoroughly comfortable and modern-looking, caravan-style dwelling which owes its contemporary feel to its previous degradation by the voracious little insects. The shack belongs to Tony, a friendly bloke jokingly referred to as a 'blow-in' for his measly two decades in the community who was invited in when the former owner of his shack was no longer able to care for it and had no willing heir to take up the responsibility. Tony restored the shack and, in the process, added a few mod-cons. The internal bathroom is tiled, the walls are smooth and a TV plays a DVD about shack life in the background.

Tony speaking to us in his 'beach shack'. Many of the shacks feature these little signs, which in another context might be considered tacky – cheap, mass-produced knick-knacks hawked by imitation-high end homeware stores to ironically adorn the holiday homes and beachside investment properties of affluent city-dwelling bourgeoisie. But somehow I think the shackholders are more entitled to make use of them than these usual purchasers.

The contemporary style of Tony's shack represents another theme that permeated the day. Kerry has encouraged us to ask questions of our guides, saying, 'They're passionate about their shacks and their ideas'. In the way of so many people who lead eccentric lifestyles, who harbour some desire to retreat from ordinary life, whether innate or bred into them by a lifetime of shack holidays, many of the shackholders seem to have eccentric or strongly held views. Of course, I only had a few hours contact with them, but even in that time I feel I was able to detect a few of these unguarded opinions, which seeped into the conversation at any opportunity, the way we vegetarians wait for any vague allusion to meat-consumption to pounce on. Kerry and the others hint laughingly a few times at the strife that arises between community members occasionally, as with any family, saying she thinks it's what makes them so close. One of the divisions I pick up on is between those who have updated their shacks and the purists who 'don't like the modernisation of the shacks' and prefer 'to keep them as humble as what they were when our parents had them', in Kerry's words.

Tony, I think, may be omitted from this mild resentment because his was a restoration of necessity, but when she takes us through her shack, passed down from her husband Gary's parents, Kerry remarks that some shacks even have Foxtel, adding, 'We ain't going down that path!' Later in the last shack we'll see we are astounded by the decorations. Books line every ledge and splay over every surface (I'm impressed by the presence of Winton and Dawkins). Entire walls are covered in patterns formed from wine corks, which seems a local fashion, while others are plastered with photos depicting festive evenings on the grog with not a few bared breasts and bottoms. Snake skins and cicada shells dangle from the rafters, dead sea animals hang in the windows, along with paraphernalia of every other kind scattered everywhere: a Navy sailor's hat that washed up on shore, artwork by the grandkids, ancient photo albums, a telescope. Awed as we enter, the owner says pointedly, 'Yeah. This is a shack. A real fisherman's shack', as if in distinction from the less authentic modern shacks that surround it.

This shack was the most exciting to me because my hermit protagonist's shack is similarly brimming with the objects he collects, and ideas were rich for the harvesting here.

All this conjures the image of a secret Little Garie cabin elite who behind closed doors thumb their noses at the unenlightened shackholders turning their abodes into the holiday-home equivalent of McMansions, and I tend to sympathise. Certainly the most unchanged old shacks are the most fascinating, both for my friends and me as a window into the past and as nostalgia for those of the older generation in attendance. Nan lights up when we enter one old shack with a hand-wound laundry wringer out front, still furnished in the old style within. Other people seem more interested in these older-style shacks as well  this shackholder proudly shows us the magazine article in which he featured, and Kerry tells me a Tropfest film was shot there last year.

Another strong and not-so-hidden view that pervades the community is a lingering contempt for the NPWS, understandable given the historical animosity between them. Helen describes the history as a pendulum swinging, and expresses a hope that one day it will eventually stop somewhere in the middle. At first the authorities liked the shacks, she says, because they wanted the revenue. Then the pendulum swung and the idea that national parks would be without people rose to prominence, before it swung back to recognise the value of human heritage. (It occurs to me that this is much more elegant and obvious metaphor for my 'stratigraphy of argumentation', which I later learned was an unconscious permutation of the Hegelian dialectic). Ever the PR liaison, Kerry speaks frankly about the rift but ends on a decidedly hopeful note, saying 'we're starting to get on an even footing now', only to be undercut by a more embittered community member who adds, 'Well, some of us are' in what is just one many veiled and unveiled digs at the (older) rangers and the NPWS throughout the day, and not without reason. In the hall after thanking us for our interest in the valley Kerry tells us it is 'important for us to get out our history, as in, the truth, let's say, not a skewed version.' We are told about one ranger who still works at the park who allegedly sunk an axe into a kerosene tank and, when asked why, reportedly answered 'So you bastards can't use it.' When bushfires swept through the region and the community evacuated, they came back to find the words 'Burn you bastards, burn' scrawled on their blackboard, supposedly by the same ranger.

The other strongly held beliefs of the community appear to be environmental. Kerry points out that the community has been forced to abandon their kerosene fridges for high-tech solar ones due to the unavailability of parts. We are introduced to at least one 'solar nut' and his solar-powered shack, as well as Peter, an affable 65-year veteran of the environmental movement, whose shack was one of the last legally bought Little Garie shacks . An engineering consultant by trade as well as a Landcare volunteer, Peter seems to be the resident historian of the community, claiming to have spent a lot of time researching to determine that the Royal National Park shacks are absolutely unique in Australia as non-road accessible coastal cabins built legally on freehold land. He distributes flyers about the communities entitled 'Living Heritage'. 

Peter's experience of the environmental movement is fascinating. It must be bizarre to have been in a movement from its inception as a fringe concern and watch it ascend to mainstream acceptance. 'I can assure you it was not very popular,' he says in the hall. 'You were considered to be a Grade-A screaming nutter'. This is a pertinent example of our tendency to underestimate how much things can change in one lifetime, and a reminder not to measure the worth of ideas by their extremity in relation to the current norm, but on their own merits. In sixty-five years there will likely be an entirely new norm that may embrace what once seemed radical. 

Peter's shack.


Before Peter speaks in the hall we are jokingly warned not to ask him about climate change. He goes on to say that the environmental movement has been 'hijacked by radical nutters who really don't understand the issues'. He may have a point and his example of the protests against hazard reduction burning is hard to argue with, but I found myself hoping this friendly and knowledgeable figure wasn't a denier of anthropogenic climate change, although the warning not to ask him about it could be interpreted either way.

The tour over, the various smaller groups reconverge on the hall for the sausage sizzle the shackholders are putting on. Alexandra and I duck back to the car to retrieve our Eski full of a vegetarian feast and sit in the grass a short distance away, attracting gratifying comments from various passersby that they're jealous of our lunch. A Little Garien hawking raffle tickets offers me the 'lucky ticket' 69 (appropriately the one from the shack featuring the lewd photographs) and I purchase some giftcards featuring paintings, photographs and drawings by a local artist to add to the nascent wall collage next to my desk to inspire me. Meanwhile, Charlene prompts my nan to buy me a 'Shacks Forever' shirt by pretending I told her I really wanted one.

I thought myself lucky to find the two paintings of the swamp wallaby, as one significant section of my novel revolves around one such wallaby who lives in the park.

After that the weather finally gives out and the rain drives everyone back inside the community hall. Fearing that the locals would take issue with an outsider coming in to tell their story for them, I was hesitant to mention the novel to anyone. My nan, however, fearlessly informed both Kerry and Helen, who thankfully responded with nothing but polite enthusiasm, obligatory though that may. But I'm glad, because it got me both some tantalising traces of stories to follow up on, some regarding the real hermits who inhabit the national park, as well as some great contacts, especially Helen, who welcomed me to contact her when I needed more information, something I will definitely be doing when the time comes. I'll also, I'm sure, be making many more journeys to the National Park to continue learning about the extraordinary communities to be found in this place which is so central to the geography of my life. And maybe when I do, at Charlene's suggestion, I'll be wearing the shirt Nan got me. 

Shacks forever!

Thanks for reading


Note: If anyone depicted visually or textually in this post wishes their name or image to be omitted, please contact me. Feel free also to contact me with any questions, corrections or complaints.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Book review: terry goodkind's the omen machine

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The following review contains mild spoilers from the early parts of the book.

Having neatly tied up his myriad loose ends in the final instalment of the Chainfire trilogy, Confessor, Terry Goodkind embarks on a whole new mess in The Omen Machine, the first in another series of Richard and Kahlan novels. Seeking, it seems, to torture his characters almost as much as his readers by keeping the spaces between novels (and cataclysms) infinitesimal, a new existential threat emerges during the celebrations following the defeat of the previous one, launching us on what is sure to be yet another protracted, poorly (i.e. not at all?) edited, banal adventure full of impossibly, ridiculously evil villains for Kahlan to be kidnapped or poisoned or otherwise imperilled by and for Richard to lecture us about. 

As an editor, reading Goodkind’s writing makes me want to prostrate myself before his publishers and beg them to allow me even a few hours alone with his manuscripts and a red pen, pro bono, before he is allowed to pollute the language with them. There’s none of the occasional moments of descriptive beauty sprinkled throughout Goodkind’s earlier works to be found here, no hint of his rarely exhibited though nonetheless surprising appreciation for detail. The prose is unwieldy and halting, repeated words clanking harshly up against one another and giving the book an overall careless, rushed feel à la the latter works of Raymond E Feist. It’s as though some of these B-grade epic fantasy authors work out that most readers don’t care how well-written their books are and they can just crank out sequel after sequel and make the same amount of money.

So, of course, it’s impossible to catalogue all the problems with a Terry Goodkind book in a single review, so I’m going to restrain myself to just one: his notorious monumental ego. Or rather, one way it manifests in his works. Possessed of a great number of opinions, ranging from morally reprehensible to innocuous, on any number of topics, Goodkind’s motivation in writing seems to be to embed as many of them in his books as often as possible, largely through the simplistic device of using his exaggeratedly perfect (in the world of the books, anyway) protagonist Richard directly to spout them for him. Plotting for Goodkind seems more an exercise in engineering various situations in which Richard can argue with and lecture other characters and the reader on one of these opinions than any conventional dedication to the integrity of the story or the gratification of the reader. Indeed, each novel is largely propelled not by action, but by argument. Revealing of their didactic impulse, the narratives largely turn on episodes in which different characters discuss events and ideas and try to convince one another of different positions in laborious exchanges that persist much longer than believability would allow.

The result is that the reader finds themself mired in perpetual, incessant exchanges between characters on subjects both mundane and esoteric, extended disputes over how best to organise and catalogue a library alongside lengthy treatises introducing abstract magical concepts that are never grounded in any previously established logic. These latter logomachies always reveal new concepts all at once, so the reader is never granted the chance to anticipate or share in the reasoning. It’s just Richard presenting some new element of the nature of magic that hasn’t come up before in any of the previous twelve overlong tomes, that completely explains what’s going on in this book, while everyone else disagrees that it’s possible until he is inevitably proven correct.

Goodkind facilitates this recurrent magical Deus ex machina at first by way of the charade of Richard’s ludicrous decision not to ‘depend on his gift’, even though he supposedly epitomises rationality and it is completely irrational for him to refuse to learn about an inescapable part of himself that could be so helpful to him, and later by making Richard a ‘war wizard’ whose magic is mysterious and able only to be activated by need and emotion, very conveniently giving it scope to work in any way the author chooses in future, failing to lock him in to any constraints. Such constraints are the very things that ordinarily make suspension of disbelief about magic possible in other series, the things that allow the reader to find any plots involving magic satisfying – that we know the way it works, that it has limits.

And I wasn’t kidding about the library debate, either. Just under an hour into the audiobook, an illustrative example of one of these monotonous, one-sided duologues occurs when we find ourselves in the royal library of D’Hara, the capital city of the eponymous empire ruled by Richard. After pacing for some time, Richard’s absurdly named grandfather, First Wizard Zeddicus ‘Zedd’ Z’ul Zorander, halts and proclaims that he’s ‘not convinced that it can work, Richard—or at least, work effectively.’ What follows is no less than six minutes of discussion over whether or not the classification of all the books in the library is a worthwhile pursuit.

What's more, this doesn’t even seem to be a point of any importance in the novel. I guess they came across a book that turned out to be important, but there’s nothing to say they had to do so while undertaking a reorganisation of the library. We can probably safely assume that it will come back in some way in future (I’m halfway through the sequel The Third Kingdom at the time of writing), but is there anything that could justify such a prolonged, mind-numbing argument over library classification?

It can only be Goodkind’s zeal to prove the veracity of one of his opinions that leads him to prolong these exchanges so unnaturally beyond the realms of credibility. He needs the discussion to go on much longer than it should so he has room to get out all of his profound thoughts. Would Zedd really try so hard to dissuade his grandson from such a harmless endeavour as trying to catalogue all the books in his library? And even if he would, is it really necessary for the reader to be subjected to it? So often does Goodkind deploy this device, it’s beginning to feel like Zedd never believes Richard about anything, no matter how many times he is proven right. All the characters, in fact, begin to appear obsessive and stubborn, overly concerned with debating minor details, unwilling to see the (diegetic) truth of their opponents’ assertions, their likeability in the eyes of the reader sacrificed at the altar of Goodkind’s ego. The debates depend on an endless stream of meaningless ‘But Richard …’ interjections from the protagonist’s interlocutors to interrupt the pages of explanation and prevent the diatribe from collapsing under its own weight. The characters are forever asking one another ‘What are you talking about?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ and regarding one another as though they are crazy because of all the insane propositions and profound misunderstandings flying back and forth.

Another illuminating instance of this propensity comes in another early scene in the novel. Shortly after a woman confesses to infanticide in order to spare her children the more gruesome death portended by a vision, and then attempts to murder Kahlan to spare her a similar fate, reformed Sister of the Dark Nicci shows up on the scene seeming to already know of the happenings despite her absence when they occurred. It becomes immediately apparent to the reader that there must be more than one instance of this going on throughout the city, but the characters on the other hand are not so fast on the uptake, positively baffled by the things they are telling one another, and we are forced to wade through 750 words of tortuous dramatic irony as the feeble-minded cast tries to determine what’s going on. It’s like the Abbott and Costello ‘Who’s on First’ skit (or the Animaniacs ‘Who’s on Stage?’ skit for you '90s kids) but without the witty paronomasia! See for yourself:

“I didn’t see you at the reception,” Richard said. “Where did you hear about her killing her children?”

Nicci frowned up at him. “Hear about it? I was there.”

“There? What do you mean you were there?”

Nicci folded her arms and stared at him as if he were the one who was crazy. “I was there. I was down in the market helping to get people organized and hurrying them along to move into the passages in the plateau and out of what is shaping up to be a monstrous storm. They need to move into shelter. Those tents aren’t going to protect them.”

“That’s true enough.”

Nicci sighed as she shook her head. “So, I was down there in the market when the first one hit.”

The creases in Richard’s brow deepened. “What do you mean, when the first one hit? First what?”

“Richard, aren’t you listening? I was there when the first child hit the ground.”

Richard’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“It was a girl, not ten years old. She came down on a log wagon, on one of the upright stake poles. That pole was bigger than my leg. She came down face-first, shrieking all the way. It went right through her chest. People were screaming and running around in confusion and panic.”

Richard blinked, trying to makes sense of what he was hearing. “What girl are you talking about?”

Nicci looked at all the faces watching her. “The girl that the woman threw off the palace wall, over the edge of the plateau, after she had her vision.”

Richard turned to Benjamin. “I thought you said you found the children.”

“I did. We found both of them.”

“Both?” Nicci’s brow drew tight. “There were four of them. All four of her children hit within seconds of one another. The first, the girl, was the oldest. When the woman threw them off the top of the plateau they all landed right there near me. Like I said, I was there. It was a horrifying scene.”

Kahlan seized a fistful of Nicci’s dress at her shoulder. “She killed four more?”

Nicci didn’t try to remove Kahlan’s hand. “Four more? What are you talking about? She killed her four children.”

Kahlan pulled Nicci closer. “She had two children.”

“Kahlan, she had four.”

Kahlan’s hand slipped from Nicci’s dress. “Are you sure?”

Nicci shrugged. “Yes. She told me so herself when I questioned her. She even told me their names. If you don’t believe me you can ask her yourself. I have her locked up in a cell down in the dungeon.”

Zedd leaned in closer. “Locked up . . . ?”

“Wait a minute,” Richard said. “You’re telling me that this woman killed her four children by throwing them off the side of the plateau? And you locked her up?”

“Of course. Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said?” Nicci frowned around at everyone. “I thought you said that you knew all about it. Her husband found out what had happened and was going to kill her. He was screaming for her blood. I was afraid that the guards who grabbed the woman were going to let him have her. I sympathize with his feelings, but I couldn’t allow it for now. I had her locked up, instead, because I thought you or Kahlan would want to question her.”

Richard was incredulous. “Why did she do it? What did she say?”

Nicci appraised them all as if they had collectively gone mad. “She said that she had a vision and couldn’t stand the thought of her children having to face the terror to come, so she killed them swiftly instead. You said that you knew about it.”

“We knew about the other one,” Richard said.

“Other one?” Nicci looked from face to face, finally settling on Richard. “What other one?”

“The one who cut her two children’s throats and then came to the reception and tried to kill Kahlan.”

Nicci’s concerned gaze darted to Kahlan. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I took her with my power and had her confess. She told us what she had done and what she intended to do.”

Nicci pressed her fingers to her forehead. “Wait, you’re saying that there was a second woman who also had a vision and killed her children?”

Kahlan and Richard both nodded.

“That would help explain why people are so unnerved and want to know what prophecy has to say about it,” Richard said.

“What’s going on?” Nicci asked.


Thanks for reading


Friday, 11 April 2014

Book review: terry goodkind's chainfire

Friday 11 April 2014

Following on from my discussion of audiobooks in my last post, 'Reading habits in the modern age', and considering the interest this review generated on Facebook when it cross-posted from Goodreads, I thought it was worth throwing up here as well. Stay tuned for more scathing reviews as I continue needlessly to torture myself with Goodkind's works until I'm all caught up ...

Deplorable Ayn Rand fanatic Terry Goodkind's sole plot device of separating hyperbolically perfect lovers Richard and Kahlan recurs yet again in Chainfire, if in a slightly more interesting incarnation this time, with the erasure of Kahlan from everybody's memories but Richard's. This results in some characteristically tedious, repetitive, unrealistic, interminable, eyeroll-inducing exchanges between Richard and other characters as he tries to convince them of his inevitable correctness against their insistence that he is deluded. Oh and also something about an invincible beast that (of course) horifically mutilates people to get to Richard. 

Goodkind has only my obsessive compulsion to finish what I start to thank for my continued consumption of his free market capitalist propaganda, and the fact that the books have been turned into audiobooks. I don't think I'd get through them if I had to will my eyes to continue relaying the derivative, uninspired words on the page to my brain instead of just tuning out and doing something else as the poor voice actor drones on and on, trying to intone the author's awkward phrases with any sense of realism. There are also, of course, the obligatory clumsy, transparent, desperate, deluded attempts from the author to trick the reader into endorsing morally untenable positions that glorify selfishness and pose helping others as the greatest kind of evil, as well as other philosophies that support a purely self-interested free market capitalist, minimal-government, nonexistent welfare dystopia. 

The book ends on a cliffhanger to propel you into the next book in the triology, and I have to admit despite my innumerable objections that I'm usually interested in what happens at the end of each book as events (finally) reach their climax. Anyway, I'm one book closer to catching up to Goodkind and hopefully not reading another book from him for many years to come (or ever again).

Thanks for reading


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reading habits in the modern age

Tuesday 1 April 2014

I'm a big fan of lists. I have a list to keep track of what I'm doing and what I'm supposed to achieve every day of the week, partly because of OCD and partly because I'm too hopeless to remember everything I have to do (sometimes I even list the individual steps of 'hanging out the washing' and 'bringing in the washing' just to feel the sense of accomplishment when I cross them off). So for a few years now I've kept a list of books to read, and more or less pondered through it chronologically. This, I take it, is not abnormal. Most readers seem to resort to lists to realise their reading aspirations. Got a recommendation? Put it on the list. A friend or lecturer writes a novel? Put it on the list. An interesting-looking book wins a prestigious award? Put it on the list. An extreme but admirable instance of this practice would be the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge, which illustrious word-man Patrick Lenton is currently undertaking over at Going Down Swinging.

Reading ... TO THE EXTREME.

Despite my appreciation of this simple form of time management and goal achievement, however, I've recently had to abandon my list in favour of a spreadsheet.

I know, right? What a sign of the times. What a statement for the digital age. What a symptom of actual obsessive-compulsive disorder. But yes, I'm afraid it is so. In the fast-paced, time-poor world of a tech-savvy Gen Y bibliophile, a list simply will not suffice. There is so much to read, and every year stacks a heap more onto the pile. In the words of the 'grim narrator' in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, 'There are many things to think of. There is much story' (2008, page 263).

The Book Thief predates doge, I believe, so that turned out to be an unfortunate choice of phrase.

On top of the library's worth of literature to read, there's the smorgasbord of platforms on which to read it: the traditional printed book, audiobooks, ebooks, podcasts, even tweets or, if you piss off the right person, text messages. And what are you supposed to do when someone decides to make a movie of a book on your list? You want to read it before it comes out, so you have to skip ahead. And don't your friends who get published deserve your immediate attention? What about when a friend loans you a book and you want to get it back to them? Or worse, when someone buys you a book and expects you to have read it by the next time you see them? And how do I make sure I'm getting the right nutritional balance of genre and literary fiction, classics and contemporary, fiction and non-fiction? Throw a few literary journal subscriptions and university readings in there and your literary lifestyle is a nightmare. The linear chronological hierarchy of the humble list simply cannot keep up with the postmodern pastiche, the multifarious mayhem of intersections between platform and genre and kind and motivation that is modern reading.

Lacking some kind of futuristic Deleuze and Guattarian reading rhizome, however (I'm not that tech savvy), the best I can do is a spreadsheet which, in its current, incipient form, looks like this:

Blue is reading, green is read.

In case you can't see at that scale, it's currently divided into ten different columns: 'classics', 'contemporary', 'literary journals', 'non-fiction', 'recommendations', 'friends' (someone I know with a book), 'movie adaptations', 'audiobooks', 'masters' (books I'm reading for research), and 'favourites' (works whose authors I like so much I want to read their entire oeuvre). This kind of compartmentalisation captures all those types of books and the motivations for reading them I outlined above and systematises them, something I find way more satisfying than I should for some reason. So far (nascent though it is) it has proven a more democratic way to read, varying my literary diet in a very enjoyable way.

But as if all this wasn't enough, the spreadsheet comes with some attendant 'rules' I automatically seem to follow. I started this 'list 2.0' reading a recommendation from my nan, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, so that's where I started on the chart, moving laterally across the columns from there through my old lecturer Christine Howe's first novel Song in the Dark, the launch for which I attended a shamefully long time ago and which I have only just read now thanks to this new system, and onto Tim Winton's short story cycle The Turning, which I wanted to read before I saw the new film adaptation(s), before coming to John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, a seminal metafictional text my supervisor advised I read for my masters. And around here is where it gets complicated, with audiobooks, classics and literary journals (favourites is a new column).

As part of my 'traipse through canon', I want to read a great swathe of classic literature right from the beginning (hence The Epic of Gilgamesh). But I don't just want to read it: I want to read it critically, take notes, write down quotes, and do parallel research so I can write about it. All this takes time and space and energy that I don't always have when I've just got a few minutes to do some reading (as the interminably slow crawl of my progress bar on Goodreads currently attests). Furthermore, when I set out to tick a canonical book off my list, I usually buy a nice hardcover addition to add it to my collection, and these can be unwieldy to carry around. So I've decided to have a hardcover classic on my bedside table at all times, reading it whenever I get the chance to read at home.

More portable literary journals, conversely, I take out with me when I know I've got to wait in a doctor's surgery or at the bus stop, or for when I'm on the train. I like to think of this as doing my part to increase the visibility both of reading as an activity and of the journals as viable leisure-reading publications for those who cannot abide the inanity of Zoo or Cleo or Woman's Day or The Daily Telegraph, not that anyone's going to look at me in public and think, 'Woah, that guy's cool, I'm also going to read.' It's silly, because I'm often on my phone just like everyone else, but when I'm on the train and see everyone looking down at their iPads and iPhones instead of reading books I (somewhat irrationally) feel like literature is losing the war, which accounts for this little bit of perceived literary exhibitionist pageantry.

And finally, audiobooks. I love them. If you take nothing else from this otherwise largely pointless and meandering post, take this: buy audiobooks (and no, this post is not sponsored by, although, if you're reading this Audible execs, maybe it should be). They're a fantastic way to turn mindless tasks and unproductive spans of your day such as walking to the shop or driving to work or doing the dishes into time well-spent (although, of course, a certain amount of mind-wandering time is essential for reflection and spontaneous thought). Podcasts are good for this too, notably the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. They're also fast, to some extent because of this capacity to be listened to any time, anywhere. They don't require dedicated time to sit and read. They don't busy your hands and eyes, just your ears and mind. It's for this reason, looking at my chart (and, for that manner, my reading catalogue), that I appear to get through them about four times faster than physical books.

In some ways, this aspect of the audiobook is all that gets me through my job. I'm an editor who works on billion-dollar submissions for tender. That's when the state government is like, 'We want a hospital designed and built and run and cleaned and maintained for thirty years', and a bunch of companies are like, 'We'll do that for teh monies!' and then the state is like, 'Well, tell us how you're going to do all this stuff better than your competitors by responding to hundreds of pages of questions and specifications'. These companies hire the company I work for to read the thousands of pages they generate in response to these questions and critique, edit, proofread and, in some cases, rewrite them, making sure they answer the question and flow nicely and such. Which is hard because this stuff is mostly written by non-writerly engineers and financial people and architects and lawyers and other people who don't do words that well (okay, it's mostly the engineers who are trouble). Given that it's usually just me and my boss working on all this for about six weeks and getting paid quite well, we are under a lot of pressure, which means ten to fourteen to eighteen-hour days and all-nighters as the deadline approaches, which means very little personal time, which means those precious spare moments I do have are extremely valuable. During these weeks, all that keeps me sane is living another life in the gaps between periods of work through audiobooks. Waking up, eating breakfast, catching a taxi, walking to the office, taking my lunch break, brief trips to the bathroom, showering, ironing my clothes: these become the only moments I have to myself, and it's wondrous being able to fill them with literature instead of only the banal mechanics of eating and washing and moving between spaces.

My good friend and fellow aspiring author Gilly put me onto audiobooks a couple of years ago when she advised that they were a good way to get on top of all the readings we had to do for our Theory for Practising Writers classes. I'll never forget the experience of my first audiobook, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and how much more emotive it was when read passionately aloud, or Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece Lolita (and then having weird incongruous flashbacks when we visited Westminster Abbey and he narrated the audiotour).

'Jeremy's ... iron?'

Audiobooks can even facilitate the reading of bad books, so you can tune out for a while as the voice actor makes the effort for you. Perhaps if I'd read the works of Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan in physical form instead of as audiobooks, I would finally understand those people who purport to 'throw books across the room' when I came across the more politically questionable and gender essentialist passages therein.

But the speed of audiobooks does make them a good way to get through a lot of your reading list  (or matrix, as the case may be) quickly. I started out using them for university readings as Gilly suggested, then commenced my 'traipse through canon' with them, downloading audiobook versions of the public domain classics for free through Librivox (although there is obviously a compromise in quality with these). But I actually found I was racing rather than traipsing through canon in such a way that I was forgetting what I'd read and, of course, I couldn't take down notes and quotes as easily.

This is the one drawback of audiobooks for me (apart from the fact that the audial equivalent of losing your page is much more frustrating!). You lose the ability to go at your own pace, unless you want to distort the sound laughably by using your device's 'slow down' or 'speed up' functions, and even then. With literary fiction, I love to take my time and luxuriate in the language, going back to read over certain passages a few times, relishing the look of the words on the page. That's why I've largely started listening only to pure entertainment-value books as audiobooks, mostly (very bad) fantasy like Feist, Jordan, Collins and Goodkind and some not-bad fantasy like Martin and Pullman.

So you can see how a matrix becomes necessary to track all of these literary endeavours. I'm reading hardcover classics in bed at night, laptop by my side to take notes; I'm reading literary journals on the train and in waiting rooms, flaunting the covers for all to see; I'm filling the banal gaps in my existence of shopping and putting the washing on (and hanging it out and bringing it in and folding it) with terribly written fantasy adventures, all the while proceeding through a rotation of award-winning contemporary fiction, non-fiction of interest, recommendations from friends, books for research, books by friends and books with impending film adaptations. I'm just not the type of person to spontaneously pick up the next thing that takes my interest. For whatever reason I have to feel like I'm reading it all, covering all bases, playing all angles. Let's just hope this level of obsession never escalates. If I ever start talking about book algorithms and reading dice-rolls, you have my permission to commit me.

Thanks for reading,

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Markus Zusak's 2008 novel The Book Thief, published by Picador.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Sexism in tennis

Monday 20 January 2013

When it comes to sport, it seems that, rather than inheriting the athleticism of my father, a personal trainer, in playing it, I have acquired (along with bad skin and bad knees) his signature brand of cynicism and his propensity for abrupt moments of abstraction while watching it.

'Son, I was always proud … that you weren't a short man.'

Dad enjoys spectatorship as much as the next bloke, but he appears simultaneously to hold the whole enterprise in contempt: teams and clubs branding themselves with the names of cities while buying and selling players from all over the world who don't have any real connection to those communities. It's too much like supporting a corporation. I find this sentiment echoed in myself.

How does one pick a team, anyway? If it's not the team of the region where you live, and not a team you grew up supporting, what determines your choice? Is it who's winning the most? Who has the prettiest colours? The best mascot? Your favourite player? My girlfriend's dad supported the Cronulla Sharks for years until he converted to the North Queensland 'Toyota' (!) Cowboys, and then to the 'iSelect' (!) Gold Coast Titans, and now has no problem using the pronouns 'we' and 'us' to refer to 'his' team, despite residing in the Illawarra. Isn't it all rather arbitrary?

'The Isotopes are winning? To the bandwagon!'

This is less applicable, I suppose, in international sports, where teams actually comprise nationals of the countries they represent, but even here Dad and I have a shared tendency to experience moments of almost Brechtian alienation, wherein the viewing experience is transcended by a sudden and profound awareness of the insignificance and absurdity of investing ourselves in such a pointless activity, a kind of 'opiate of the massesstyle' reluctance to be diverted by an exercise in corporatised nationalism, the outcome of which will ultimately have no impact on our lives.

One such moment occurred for Dad last Friday night as we watched the match between Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic in Rod Laver Arena. 'What are we doing here?' he asked at one point, nudging me and laughing, a common effect of the incongruous jerk out of the immediacy of the experience and into comprehension of its ludicrousness. 'Why do we care? Does it pay my mortgage if Stosur wins tonight?'

Although I generally disapprove of any form of slavish utilitarianism ('I AM A CAPITALIST DRONE; EVERY ACTIVITY IN WHICH I ENGAGE MUST PROVIDE ME WITH SOME DIRECT, CONCRETE, PREFERABLY MONETARY BENEFIT'), and I harbour a vague inclination that sport fulfills some subtle but important purpose* in our society, I still find these to be compelling questions. Why do we care so much whether one entity beats another entity in an otherwise entirely useless endeavour?

'Oh my God, Marge. A penalty shot with only four seconds left. It's your child versus mine! The winner will be showered with praise; the loser will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore!'

*I know, I know, it's about an outlet for primal aggression, social rituals and cohesion, blah blah.

In this instance, however, I couldn't fully share in Dad's characteristic momentary bewilderment. For reasons not entirely clear to me, tennis exempts itself from my usual spectatorial reticence, especially once a year for the term of the Australian Open when, time permitting, I become a rabid tennis fan. A were-fan, if you will. I look up rankings, download apps, text friends about matches, and follow every game I can.

I'm aware that, if anything, the 'pointlessness' of sport is exaggerated in tennis, where the match is confined to 260 square metres and the task can essentially be decocted to 'get the ball over the net and within the lines', but perhaps it's that there's something more honest about it as an individual pursuit that allows it to evade my cynicism. These aren't footballers professing some kind of loyalty to their team before scarpering off to the highest bidder the moment their contract is up, particular personalities subsumed into the larger team identity. They're individuals playing for themselves whose characters are on display to earn your support or opposition.

When I examine my list of favourite players and try to determine why I like them, however, it's still decidedly arbitrary, just slightly less so. With hundreds of individuals to choose from, you end up being quite superficial – one bad impression can be enough to turn you off someone. For me it seems to come down to a complex subconscious calibration of a player's skill, grace, manner, sense of humour, eloquence, nationality and, as I'm becoming increasingly aware when it comes to women (to my dismay), appearance. Which is my tortuous, Simpsons-like way of getting to the point that I've been thinking about how we pick which players to support in tennis, and who gets attention for what, and particularly how the criteria differ for men and women. 

Even as perhaps one of the women's sports deemed most 'watchable' by men, the tennis court is a fraught field for gender issues, dominated for years by 'pin-ups' like Kournikova, Sharapova and Ivanovic and throwing up perennial debates over prize money, air time and the comparative quality and entertainment value of the men's and women's games. What brought the issue of player popularity to mind for me, however, was watching the match between Australian Casey Dellacqua and rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard last night. 

Whether it's the men's or women's game, one truth universally acknowledged in tennis is the vapidity of the commentary. Tennis commentators seem to struggle to find anything much of value to add. One example from last night's match was Sam Smith's observation that Dellacqua had been eating a bread roll before the match, from which she extrapolated two things: one, that Casey hadn't had much dinner, and two, that she was nervous. Compelling stuff.

Is it any surprise then that we find traces of sexism in the inanities spouted by commentators in their furious verbal attempts to justify their relevance? Not conscious sexism, but the more insidious kind that infects the way even decent people think on a basic level. It's like what I was discussing in my last post (a thousand years ago) regarding Tony Abbott and his 'sex appeal' blunder: when the mind casts around for something to latch onto, something to say, the things it finds can be revealing, a window into a person's way of seeing the world and, therefore, the otherwise invisible ideology that shapes their worldview. It's problematic as it is that female commentators are never assigned a men's match while at least one man is always present in the commentary box for a women's match, but watching last night I became aware that the idle chatter of the commentators differs greatly depending on the gender of the players and the way they look.

As I type I'm watching Smith interview Dominika Cibulkova. Despite having just achieved the considerable feat of vanquishing world number three Maria Sharapova, the Slovak is being quizzed about her relationship status, how long she's been engaged, and her engagement ring. WHAT IS THIS?

It's astounding how much time is spent discussing looks in the women's game, even if it's obliquely, euphemistically. At one point, as I pointed out on Twitter, it was stated that Dellacqua was 'more girl-next-door than the girl next door', which can be translated to mean she is homely and unglamourous. This was underscored by Smith's statement only moments later that Dellacqua's opponent Bouchard is 'the heir to Sharapova in marketing terms', a euphemism for 'she's the hottest, blondest, whitest young player on the circuit.'

Bouchard (left) and Dellacqua (right).

Later Smith's obligatory male 'supervisor' (whose name I'm unsure of) joked that most of Bouchard's supporters, referred to by her as the 'Eugenie Army', seemed to be young men. After Bouchard had won, Renae Stubbs momentarily puzzled her in her post-match interview by saying she was sure her supporters were all about ready to propose to her.

And discussing the match Bouchard's win had set up for her with Ivanovic, the male commentator referred to Ivanovic as one of the 'all time great poster girls', as if she were a model rather than a tennis player, notable for her beauty rather than her skill. In response Smith asked 'How are you going to market it? The beauty of Belgrade versus the princess of Quebec?' and remarked that the pair were two very 'marketable' young girls.

Contrast this with the commentary on a comparable male player, Vasek Pospisil, who defeated Australia's Matt Ebden last Wednesday night. Pospisil and Bouchard are both attractive, white, blonde, young (23 and 19 respectively) Canadians with similar singles rankings (30 and 28) who triumphed over Australians. Yet not once did the appearance of Bouchard's countryman attract any commentary: no mention even of his adoring female fans, no talk of the impending match up between the 'Canadian catch' Pospisil and 'Swiss stud' Wawrinka.

Canadian heartthrob Vasek Pospisil.

Again, it's not that these commentators are bad people, it's that they've been conditioned by the prevailing ideology of the day to automatically view and assess women in terms of their appearance more than they do with men. The only way to wake people out of this ideology is to call it out when we see it, and we see it everywhere.

When the vacuous woman sitting next to me at the Stosur–Ivanovic match breezed into the arena four games into the first set, her first question to her companion was 'Who's that'?

'Ana Ivanovic', he answered.

'Ooh, she's really pretty', she cooed.

Moments later when Stosur appeared on the screen she laughed that the world number 17 looked 'like a man'. Former world number one Amélie Mauresmo was the target of similar criticism. In a habit that I'm sure would chasten her if I brought it up now, my best friend in high school would periodically proclaim with some vehemence her 'hatred' for Mauresmo. The reason? 'She looks like a man!' 

Stosur (left) and Mauresmo (right)

As well as being too muscular or masculine, female tennis players can be too fat. When Dellacqua made her return to the Australian Open in 2009, she drew criticism from, among others, Roger Rasheed for being out of shape, a claim she and her trainers strongly repudiated. But that incident pales in comparison to the disgusting public reaction to Marion Bartoli's 2013 Wimbledon win, best summarised by the tweets collected in an article by Amanda Chatel.

Bartoli (left) and Dellacqua (right)

It's not enough, it seems, for a woman to be among the best tennis players in the world. She must also be born buxom and beautiful and maintain a slim, feminine figure.

It's not even safe in the sidelines. Lleyton Hewitt's wife Bec (nee Cartwright) was recently the target of an article by the ever-atrocious Daily Mail and others asking whether she'd 'overdone it on the tan'.

I'd say she looks completely fine …

On the other hand, 'Aussie Ana' Ivanovic (a Serb) has been claimed for Australia by Todd Woodbridge, and every commentator to have taken up the moniker since 2008 when she won the Australian Open, due to her overwhelming popularity in Australia. In a poll yesterday asking who was expected to win the tournament after Williams' departure that Sam Smith joked could've been rephrased as 'Who is your favourite female player?', popular Chinese player Li Na, number three seed Sharapova and the defending champion Azarenka each received circa 20% of the vote, while Ivanovic was assigned double that at approximately 40%. But what can Ivanovic possibly have done to earn this popularity, other than being young and beautiful? Can anyone honestly contend she has twice the personality of Li Na, twice the skill of Azarenka?

I myself am not immune to Ivanovic's charms, nor to subtle sexism. There's no doubt she's attractive; she's actually pretty much exactly my type. But that's separate to her skill as a tennis player. It doesn't have to be her defining attribute. It shouldn't be mentioned by commentators every time she's on court. And players who don't have her looks shouldn't suffer in popularity, or worse, be lambasted for it. A cursory consideration of the list of my other favourite female players doesn't seem to reveal that I favoured them especially for their looks: Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Li Na, Ai Sugiyama. In fact, if anything, I hold a strange contempt for the bevy of attractive young interchangeable, quadrisyllabically named female players who've come to my attention over the last couple years: Caroline Wozniacki, Danielá Hantuchova, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka.

Female favourites (left to right): Dementieva, Henin, Li, Sugiyama.

Un-favourites (left to right): Wozniacki, Hantuchova, Zvonareva, Azarenka.

But then, on closer consideration, I think sexism might come into it at some level. Is my dismissal of this second group just another form of sexism? Do I think they're too pretty to be good players, to be memorable, to have personality? And even though my favourites aren't women I find especially attractive, they are all undoubtedly beautiful women, slender and graceful. There's no women among my favourites who are unattractive. Why is that?

And what about who's missing from my list? Notably absent is Serena Williams, though I can safely assign her exclusion to other factors than her looks. I do admire her skill in the game, but her ineloquence, her obnoxious, particularly American fervent Christianity, forever thanking God for her wins in her stumbling, graceless acceptance speeches, as though he has specifically chosen her, puts me off. But why not Clijsters? Why not Bartoli? If their slightly rounder features and thicker bodies were swapped for the slight frames of Dementieva and Henin, can I really pretend my preferences would be the same? 

Lately I'm becoming increasingly alarmed about our society's attitudes towards physical appearances. We may try to hide it by using terms like 'marketable', but that only puts the problem at one further remove; what is marketable is determined by what people want, and what people want is to see attractive people and to judge ugly people, people they can safely designate 'uglier than me'. Ugliness now is treated like a fault, like something we have any power over. And deviating from the standard body form long ago became a crime worthy of opprobrium. 

Recently I've had a number of windows into the world of acting and theatre, and have been disappointed to learn that even respectable institutions are primarily concerned with the 'marketability' of their auditionees, that it's 'unheard of' for people of certain looks and body shapes to be given places, regardless of acting talent. Meanwhile, inexperienced eighteen-year-olds who happen to have been born with 'the look' are raised up out of the masses clamouring for a place without any need to distinguish themselves theatrically.

And it's not just women. My sisters recently informed me that all their male friends are on steroids or growth hormones of some form or another. Normal, healthy-looking sixteen-year-olds dosing themselves with drugs to turn themselves into miniature 'Zyzz' effigies in under six months, the better to worship at the altar of the self in the temple of the gym.

I always knew we lived in a superficial world, but somehow I still believed that everyone knew that it was wrong. I thought everyone had learned in their childhood from fairy tales and cartoons that it was what was on the inside that counts, and not to judge a book by its cover and that, even if they still did so, they knew somewhere that it wasn't the right thing to do. But all I've seen lately is unabashed superficiality. It's why reality TV is still so popular – it's cheap hour after hour of unadulterated judgement, and we love to sit in judgement of one another. 'What is she wearing?' 'She's too ugly to be the next top model.' 'Why would he pick that song?' 'He looks gay in that.' 'How can they be so stupid?' 'I hope he gets voted out, he's annoying.'

If there's one cause for hope for me in the tennis world, it's Li Na. I was there for the 2013 women's final when Li faced Azarenka. From my friends who watched at home I've heard it was considered a boring match, but for those in the arena it was electric. Fresh from the controversy of the previous round where it was speculated Azarenka had taken a medical timeout purely to throw her winning opponent Sloane Stephens off rhythm, the crowd was entirely behind Li Na, to the point that Azarenka's winners were met with mere polite applause while her unforced errors, usually awkward to applaud, were met with impassioned cheers, and Li's two on-court collapses elicited immediate heart-wrenching sympathy. The fact that an Asian woman who speaks only broken English can through her charm, sense of humour and fighting spirit win over a public as racist as Australia's gives me hope where little else does.

Thanks for reading,