An Eclectic Range of Subject Matter: Annette Marfording reviews The Best Australian Essays 2015 by Geordie Williamson

Black Inc, The Best Australian Essays 2015, edited by Geordie Williamson, Black Inc, 2015

Best-Essays-2015

As a regular reader and lover of these annual collections it is fascinating to see the different choices the respective editors make for the year’s best essays, and how sometimes they confound your expectations. A prime example is a comparison between the 2014 and the 2015 collections of the year’s best essays. The 2015 editor was Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of The Australian and primarily a reviewer of fiction, who followed in the footsteps of Robert Manne, a former professor of politics and author of many non-fiction books and essays. Knowing these backgrounds, a reader might expect an emphasis on political essays in Robert Manne’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2014 versus an emphasis on literary reviews and creative non-fiction and memoir in Geordie Williamson’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2015. Yet, that is not so.

The eclecticism of Geordie Williamson’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2015 is apparent in its inclusion of essays on climate change, new science, terrorism, sexism, the mining industry, political history, the dangers of so-called alternative medicine, Aboriginal issues, cricket, gambling, musicians and music critics.

Political essays include Guy Rundle’s take on the absurdity of the political reactions after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris; Sebastian Smee’s analysis on the direct relevance of Goya’s art to terror and mass killings today; Rebecca Griggs’ opinion on the mining industry and its FIFA workers in Western Australia; and Mango MacCallum’s obituary of Malcolm Frazer, which considers his history and policies before, during and after his Prime Ministership. The strongest essay is perhaps Noel Pearson’s ‘Remote Control: Ten Years of Struggle and Success in Indigenous Australia’ which reports on the present state of Aboriginal affairs after the Northern Territory intervention and on native title in the face of the mining boom. The essay causes you to weep at successive governments’ ineptitude and to marvel at the resiliency of Aboriginal people who rarely seem to lose hope.

Maria Tumarkin, poet, critic and essayist, contributes a strong and passionately argued piece on the treatment of first-generation migrants and refugees in Australia with regard to their professional expertise, knowledge and skills, which are all too often not acknowledged or recognised as useful.

Alison Croggon’s piece ‘Trigger Warning’ begins as follows: “The first time I was raped, a stranger climbed into bed with me while I was sleeping at a friend’s house…” It is a strongly argued essay on the ways in which men treat and position women in society.

Both Helen Garner’s and Anna Krien’s personal/memoir pieces are humorous. Anna Krien’s subject matter is her past and present life in a Holden panel van and Helen Garner’s is ‘The Insults of Age’, though the latter also brims with outrage, and rightly so.

Felicity Plunkett’s ‘Sound Bridges: A Profile of Gurrumul’, its title a convenient short hand for its subject matter, is a highly thoughtful and beautifully written contextual analysis of Gurrumul in the light of his Aboriginal background and cultural inheritance, policies and politics over Aboriginal people and assessments of his music made by music critics.

Tim Winton’s ‘Havoc: A life in Accidents’ examines the history of traffic accidents in his own and his father’s life and how these shaped them as men. In the last paragraph he says, “My old man survived his career in havoc. … And now I’ve been a writer longer than he was a copper. Both of us have tried to avoid trouble, and yet it’s been our business. Without strife, the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with.”

Other personal highlights are essays on reading and writing, Mark Mordue in ‘The Library of Shadows’ highlights the dark novels that capture and make us. Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘The Pencil and the Damage done’ is a brilliant dissection and lament of the lack of ethics amongst many authors. As a prime example, she uses the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard and his autobiographical so-called fictional work My Struggles in which he uses his words as a sword to pierce friends and family, including his children by expressing boredom, resentment and other negative emotions. The damage was catastrophic, Knausgaard had to move to other countries, most of his family have stopped communicating with him and his writing triggered manic depression in his wife. Ceridwen Dovey’s powerfully argued piece should remind all authors of the damage they may cause.

Overall, the 2015 edition includes an eclectic range of subject matter, and that is how it should be with these annual collections of The Best Australian Essays.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Best Australian Essays 2015 is available from  http://www.bestaustralianwriting.com.au/essays/

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