When we were doing our pre-natal classes, the midwife, Sharon, spoke about something a wee bit frightening called the Witching Hour. This is the time of day or night a baby generally tends to go pretty psycho, when nothing will work, there’s nothing to be done, and everyone just has to punch through the pain until it’s over. She said the Witching Hour often strikes around 6 pm at night, or 4 am in the morning, depending on your draw, and I have a growing sense of foreboding that I know exactly which preferred hour Baby J’s will be. You see, Baby J has taken quite a liking to going ballistic at about 3 am, sometimes a little later. This is apparently an excellent time for calisthenics class if you’re living upside down in a wildly inflated uterus. Baby J seems to like nothing more than pummelling the walls with every limb and lump at his or her disposal. You rang? What can I get you? Nothing? Right, then. I’d best get up anyway and go to the loo.
Usually I’m able to go back to sleep reasonably promptly, but not last night. Baby J was going for some kind of personal best, and once my brain joined him or her in a traitorous taunting, I was pretty well done for. And then the alarm went off: time to look lively, transcribe, write, and file by midday. A bumper morning after a literally bumpy night, so it’s with growing excitement that I contemplate an early collapse this evening.
Anyway, miracle of miracles, my local newsagency-cum-bookstore actually has a plump pile of The Best Australian Stories (and Essays, and Poems) sitting right by the shelves, box fresh and apparently still waiting for a more prominent home. I scooped the top of the tower and brought it home toot sweet, and having been snout-in for the past couple of hours, I have this to say about cracking the Australian anthology market: fuck a duck, it’s hard yakka.
Let’s consider the numbers. Cate Kennedy received hundreds of submissions. Hundreds. Just take a moment to picture all those hopefuls in your mind’s eye, perhaps standing in formation, singing on the beach like in the Qantas ad (and what would these scores of unpublished Australian fiction writers sing, I wonder…? AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell,’ perhaps?). I’m sure the thought of them all but tortured Cate as she made her selection; she intimates as much in her lovely Introduction.
But back to the number crunch.
There are 29 stories in this collection. Of these, 21 have been previously published, in collections (including Charlotte’s Brothers and Sisters, so let’s give her a bit of a wolf whistle for a spunky volume that’s still turning the other editors’ heads) and journals over the past year. A couple more previously unpublished stories have won competitions and prizes. None of this year’s 29 authors were having their fiction published for the very first time – or at least, where there were no references to prior fiction publications, there seemed to be forthcoming novels about to tumble off the press. As one would expect of a volume entitled BEST Australian Stories, not middling or early career or pretty bloody ordinary, there are some dauntingly familiar names: Robert Drewe, Paddy O’Reilly, Nam Le, Louise D’Arcy. Basically, this is a tough nut to crack.