More Than a Fraction of a Chance

September 11, 2008 at 4:13 am (Uncategorized)

Well, well, well, we have an Aussie on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, and it’s none other than Sydney writer Steve Toltz, who debuted this year with A Fraction of the Whole. I’ve been idly following Toltz’s rather glittering trajectory since his book was released to foamy acclaim earlier in the year. I guess he piqued my interest because the gush factor was so high and so ubiquitous right across the press coverage, right from the beginning. That’s always intriguing, and all the more impressive when it’s for a writer and a first-timer at that. Such hyperbolic enthusiasm is generally reserved for people with names like Angelina and Scarlet. 

At the time I first heard his name, I was in the depths of an earlier draft and feeling pretty, um, jealous. His advance from Penguin was rumoured to be around $100,000 – mighty validating stuff, I imagined then as now. Of course it’s never about the money, which is lucky (she says, allowing herself a laugh), but it would be nice to be able to greet Llew at the door one night with the news that actually, I too would be bringing home a side of bacon. At the moment my income sits squarely in the ‘unidentified pork bits’ category, a bit random and always a little bit of a risk. It would be very sweet to help Llew out of the suit and tie he’s forced to wear each day partly because of me and say, “Guess what, honey? I made a hundred grand today.” I think we’d probably both like that. So good on Toltz, I think, for pulling it off: the pay off. It can happen. 

I confess to not having read the book yet. People think that because I have a PhD in English Literature, and because I’m an aspiring novelist, I somehow have more hours in the day than everyone else and must therefore have read every book ever printed, even the ones that people hand out on station platforms straight from the box, but of course it’s NOT TRUE. Go look at a bookstore and just try calculating the lifetimes you’d need to read the entire catalogue, assuming you did nothing else for the rest of your days on earth. I am reading all the time, constantly, and I can’t even make a dint. So no, I have not yet read A Fraction of the Whole, but I did pick it up and fan the pages. I read the first page and a few more and then I replaced it on the shelf and moved on. Something about it put me off. And I know exactly what it was: it’s a huge book, really long and rambling, and yet in umpteen interviews I read of Toltz when his book came out, he intimated that he’d written it ‘accidentally,’ like it was a crazy whim, a lark involving a carpark and a stolen supermarket trolley. An accident that took him about four years. And I guess that just pissed me off. Sour grapes, I know them well. I looked at his huge book in its prominent display and I thought, ‘You’re such a fibber. It’s such bullshit to tell people you never meant to be a writer, you never intended to write a book, it all just happened – KAPOW – and isn’t life just zany?’ – I resented him as I stood in that bookstore, I honestly did. I must have been having a bad day with my very deliberate, fully conscious, long-term, totally committed effort to write my own book (insert shaking fist and ‘Damn you, Toltz!’ tantrum here).

I write for newspapers and magazines for a living, so I do get the fact that it’s much more interesting and therefore much likelier to command additional column inches if an author like Toltz, tall, dark, handsome and so irreverent, can sit back and casually say things like it was all a happy accident writing a genius first novel that was instantly picked up and released to immediate acclaim. That, my friends, is a good story. No, it’s a great story. Toltz gives good copy. And again, good for him. This is a MUG’S GAME, so few succeed it’s an act of absurdity to even try, so I look on him and his soaring success with increasing admiration rather than the envy I let go of back there in the bookstore. My little act of passive-aggression: watch me not buy your book! So pathetic and small of me! And I am duly abashed now enough time has passed. I doff my cap to Mr Toltz, and I shall buy his book, and I shall read it, and I shall hope that an accidental author has the audacity to take out the prize. I wish him genuine good luck, not that he seems in need of it, as he has clearly got a talent for creating his own.

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