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Aussie Booker nominee says European lit is worse than dead: It’s boring.

August 17, 2010

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas is already the author of this year’s most controversial Man Booker Prize nominee, The Slap. Now he’s taken a whack at European literary culture, calling it “dry and academic, and not in the best way, but in a cheap, shi–y way.”

Americans, he added, do a much better job of writing about suburban experience as lived by real people, citing John Updike’s classic adultery novel, Couples, as an example of the kind of “fearlessness that I am hungry for.”

(Before we Yanks pat ourselves on the back, note that Tsiolkas reaches 42 years into the past to find a novel he can approve of).

It’s not like Tisolkas made these incendiary remarks from the remotes fastness of Melbourne or Sidney. No, he waited until he visited Scotland over the weekend, where he addressed the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

“Every time I come to Europe I feel less European,” said Tsiolkas, son of Greek immigrants. “I feel Europeans are so much more class bound … it feels so much heavier here in Europe, not just in Scotland but in Greece, Italy. That must have an effect on your literature.”

Tsiolkas spoke of reading a collection of European short stories given him by a friend: “They didn’t talk about the real. I want something more rigorous, more challenging than I am finding at the moment,” he said, according to the London Telegraph.

Christos Tsiolkas

Tsiolkas also defended The Slap against charges of misogyny, vulgarity and excessive violence. Writer India Knight, for one, has declared it “unbelievably misogynistic, and I say that as someone who loves Flashman and Philip Roth … There is no joy, no love, no hope, no beauty, just these hideous people beating each other up, either physically or emotionally.”

The Slap, Tsiolkas’ fourth novel, begins at a surburban barbecue, where a man slaps an unruly three-year-old who is not his son. Hard feelings and legal action ensue.

Told from the perspectives of eight characters — four men, four women — it is, the author says, “not a book about whether it is right or wrong to slap a child, but about this generation which has so much wealth and prosperity but is also one of great selfishness.”

Tsiolkas said critics are mistaking the author for his characters. He learned not to do as a boy, he added, while reading children’s wrier Enid Blyton: “It’s not a misogynistic book; it’s about infantile men who are misogynistic,” he said.

First published two years ago in Australia, where it was a bestseller, The Slap won the 2009 Commonwealth Prize. British and American reviews, have for the most part, been favorable. Jane Smiley, writing in the Guardian, says it’s “riveting from beginning to end,” adding that Tsiolkas’ “real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters.”

British odds makers have The Slap a 20-1 long shot to win the £50,000 Booker. But if Tsiolkas seems unlikely to beat out favorites like Peter Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America) or David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), he has already triumphed.

Not only is The Slap the most talked about Booker nominee in years, it is out-selling its second most popular competitor, Emma Donoghue’s Room, by more than three to one. It sold more than 5,000 copies in Britain alone during the first week after the Booker longlist was announced at the beginning of the month.

Don’t assume, though, that Tsiolkas is an Aussie chauvinist. The Slap, after all, is set in Melbourne, and the suburban rot it exposes is thoroughly home grown.

“The early 1990s were the last time I felt proud of Australia,” Tsiolkas said.  “I had travelled in Europe – it was after the wall came down – and all I heard was foul racism about immigrants.”

By contrast, Australian multiculturalism looked tolerant and admirable. “But now things have gone backwards. Things have become more selfish.”

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 17, 2010 1:36 pm

    I remember a political candidate running for the VA House of Delegates in the Roanoke area (against Dick Cranwell) back in the late 1990s who slapped someone else’s kid while standing in line. Needless to say, that candidate did NOT win.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 17, 2010 2:45 pm

      Was he also a misogynist?

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 17, 2010 4:07 pm

    Chances are good. He was one of those extreme right conservative Republican Goons using Gods, Gays and Guns as his primary campaign tools.

  3. August 17, 2010 9:15 pm

    Do I agree with Christos? Not as long as Hilary Mantel keeps writing and publishing books like WOLF HALL. I don’t generally like “historical fiction,” but Mantel’s lyrical lines mesmerized me along with the down and dirty story of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More and other beautifully drawn figures from the period Henry VIII dominated. And what about David Peace? A wild-ass, gut-wrenching writer of crime novels mostly set in London, but also Japan. He’s as gritty as any American writer today and way beyond any of them in originality. I’m sitting here trying to think of other European writers who seem to have a sledgehammer in one hand a pen in the other, but no one else comes to mind. Are European writers over-refined? Too close to academia? Judged on their allusions and metaphors rather than their dark, riveting perversions? Or their ho-hum pabulum for the educated sophistics? Ian What’s-His-Name comes to mind. Boy, is that guy way over-rated. That said, American writers are leaning towards being as tame as the Europeans, lots of style, little substance and less insight. A firebrand genius here and there, but tons of yawners that disappoint. Tons of MFA graduates hooked on formula. Such who abound in the journals pumped out and unread in every state in this here union. Oh, this is a discussion we could have till the cows come home. Chauncey, what European writers do you admire most? Just wondering.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 18, 2010 12:01 am

      I confess I don’t read as much contemporary European fiction as I’d like, though if Christos can cite Couples, I guess I can claim The Unbearable LIghtness of Being, right? And London Fields? I dont love everything Martin Amis writes, but some of it’s downright brilliant. Here are a few writers I don’t quite know well enough to pass a general judgement on, but I think they should fit anyone’s criteria for grit or realism: Roddy Doyle. Patrick McCabe. Barbara Vine. P.D. James. Pat Barker (!!!). William Boyd. Irvine Welsh. Simon Mawer. That’s off the top o’ me ‘ead. I’m sure there’s scads more. Oh and the French writer, Stephane Audeguy, I loved his first novel, The Theory of Clouds (not so gritty, but lyrical in a tough-minded way, or the other way around), and while I don’t even like China Mieville’s latest horror riff, Kraken, his previous novel, The City and the City, is one of the best things I’ve EVER read.

  4. August 17, 2010 9:18 pm

    PS – Now I’ve got to add THE SLAP to my stack of novels. See what you’ve done!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 18, 2010 12:06 am

      Oh, and Duff, I’m always charmed no end when someone smart takes one of my enthusiasms, in this case Hillary Mantel, and runs with it, pedal to the metal.

  5. August 18, 2010 9:00 pm

    Martin Amis – uneven, often straining for something he can’t get. Kingsley is a more one-two punch writer in my humble estimation. Roddy Doyle is top of the down-and-dirty working class, but what the hell Doyle is as Irish as Irish gets. My kinsman, I love him. The Theory of Clouds has gone onto my list. Haven’t heard of it until now, but since you turned me on to Mantel, I trust you completely. If I were ever to attempt a historical fiction, Mantel would be my model. I owe you for that one, Chauncey. It’s one book I’ll be reading again. I read it so fast, I’m sure I missed many satisfying subtlties. Tomorrow I’m after Laura B. Davis’ The Stubborn Season. I’ll let you know.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 19, 2010 10:51 am

      For the record, I’m nearing the end of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story, which I so wanted to dislike, on the grounds that it has been taken up into the media maelstrom and exalted beyond the gag reflex. Alas, while sputtering at the outset, the novel turns out to be clever, insightful, well-constructed and funny. Damn. Next up: Dunno. Maybe David Mitchell…

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