Who wrote this letter?
Louise Swinn, one of the editors of The Sleepers Almanac, a short story collection put out by an independent publisher, and which I reviewed.
I bet you think she wrote to praise me, yes?
"In his attempt to 'show the diversity that exists in the independent scene', Ben Peek (Overland 191), by looking at only five books, actually ends up misrepresenting the rich independent publishing scene. His is in no way a 'small tour through the content of the lesser-known independent presses of Australia'.
Of the books reviewed, four were from publishing houses and one was self-published; of the four not self-published, three were from Melbourne. This is not a genuine attempt to show diversity. While poor editing and low-quality cover design can be frustrating, it seems churlish in such a small review space to spend so long focusing on these matters. The discussion of the stories themselves was brief, lightweight and, sometimes, non-existent. The overview ended up jamming a bizarre bundle of books together with an attempt to weigh up a speculative fiction anthology, three novels and a literary fiction anthology beside each other.
I am one of the editors of the last book looked at in the overview, The Sleepers Almanac No.4, but it is not the treatment of that book with which I take issue. The self published novel, The Ascension of Phoebus Klein, is given short shift by any standard. At a time when review space is in decline, Peek explains that 'there is nothing about the novel worth recommending,' and then goes on to draw comparisons with the independent music scene, without attempting to engage with the text at all. The reader comes away with no idea of the narrative, the writing style, the themes being broached, or any real idea whether they might enjoy the book.
If this is a 'small tour', it feel slike a tour outsdie a building, when it would have been more interesting delving into the musty interior. That is, after all, where books' magic really lies.
The easy mark in her reply is the elitism that forms her resentment of me jamming a spec fic anthology, three novels and a literary fiction anthology together. I'm always impressed when someone values one genre over another, and it appears that Swinn, who names her own anthology 'literary' fiction and her inability to name the genres of the novels I reviewed is quite telling. In case you're curious, they were a comedy and two pieces of literary fiction, the first of which is the self published kind that features a narrator who stutters for two hundred odd pages in first person, and the second that belongs to the gritty urban novel that is about prostitutes and boys with amnesia. But, hey, why worry about those three books, when you can make a snide comparison between literary fiction and speculative fiction and how they don't belong together. In case you're curious, the speculative fiction book was an exploration of the masculinity in our culture, and the 'literary' anthology a collection of short fiction that aimed to give new authors their start.
In fact, here's what I wrote about the Sleepers Almanac:
By and large, the independent-released anthologies of each year in Australia are the main place that readers will be able to hear authors gain their voices. In the case of The Sleepers Almanac, this also applies to the editors and publishers, Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn, since the reader will, upon seeing the book, make the immediate connection to McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s, if you haven’t heard of it, is a quarterly anthology out of the States with a reputation for beautiful, but ever changing, book design, and quirky, offbeat stories. Sleepers is obviously influenced by the reputable collection, as the altered book details inside, the quirky quizzes taken from Robert Heinlein and lists of books and TV shows the editors have enjoyed, attest. The too-strong influence of an already existing series does diminish Sleepers compared to someone like Forsyth (whose influences are less obvious) – but then, if you are going to be inspired, there are few better publications to be inspired by.
The book is primarily made up of new authors, a large portion of their stories relying on quirk, such as Jeff Hoogenboom’s ‘The Miracle of the Beer and Tim Tams’, where Jesus comes over for dinner, or on relationships that have the shallowness of the early twenties, such as Jo Bowers’ ‘Game’. There are established authors here, but they are, to be polite, slumming it – it’s been a long held belief in the independent press that, for collections to sell, a few name authors must be included. As most of the books do not pay professional rates, the fiction that they end up with from the name-authors is bottom-drawer stuff. An example is Max Barry’s contribution, ‘A Shade Less Perfect,’ which is about children and vampires and werewolves, and leaves the reader groaning at its idiocy. The true joy of reading Sleepers lies not in what the established authors are (or aren’t) doing, but in the discovery of writers who have a little something extra to distinguish themselves. Where else but a collection like Sleepers would I find Jessica Au’s story about struggling immigrant worker, ‘Leopards’? Writing in a beautifully, strong clear voice, Au was the find of the book for me, and I would readily buy more work from her.
Of course, if I had been given more space it's entirely possible that I would have spent more time talking about the fiction in the book, but since--as Swinn herself knows, having reviewed for Overland--there's a limit to the space involved, and I was purposefully bouncing off a article by Mark Davis in the issue before, some choices had to be made.
Still, I personally love this letter she wrote, because I love it when editors and publishers and writers are so offended that they are forced to take up pens against me. To me, it shows that I struck the nerve, the weakness, the raw spot that they themselves know within their work.
And in this case?
Well, it's that Sleepers is nothing but a rip off of McSweeney's with substandard fiction in it.
I hope you all took notes.
(Cross posted with benpeek.com)