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