17 October, 2009, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
Tony Martin and Catherine Deveney argued for bogans in this ‘comedy debate’. Jane Clifton and Tony Wilson represented the ‘books’.
If you’re anything like me, you’re running a temperature of about 112 and are on so much prescription medication, you’re not really sure where you are. This could be the State Library, or it could be the opening scene of David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
Obviously, if it is the latter, the front three rows might like to move back a tad. Because you will get splattered with cranial matter. On the upside, the debate will be forfeited and you can all piss off early to the pub. Or to Borders, to see if they’ve got the new Jonathan Franzen. Because you’re book nerds, aren’t you? I can feel you, looking up at me, thinking, ‘There is no new Jonathan Franzen, what the hell are you talking about?’
Oh yeah, I know what you people are like. Because, if you are anything like me, you know what it’s like to feel your heart racing as you approach the specials table at Readings and pick up what looks to be a US import hardcover edition of Alice Munro’s Runaway – feel the deckled edges – it’s a Knopf original! – fumble for the imprint page, is it? Yes, it is! It’s a first edition, for $12.95 – that’s half the price of the local paperback!
If you’re like me, you’re buying all three local papers on a Saturday and going straight for the ‘Books’ sections. Noting the new, smaller-format ‘Review’ section in The Weekend Australian, turning to your partner and saying, ‘Is it just me, or are there just twelve pages of book reviews where there used to be sixteen?’
If you’re like me, you’re losing sleep over the imminent arrival of these newfangled Kindle machines. I mean, are they any good? Are they really going to replace books? Are people really going to want to read Nicholas Nickleby off a calculator? I mean, didn’t anybody read that essay by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker?
If you’re like me, you’re tossing and turning about the selection of extracts in that new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature – I mean, have they included enough indigenous writers? What does Clive James think? Has Peter Craven weighed in? Is it really worth getting up and going to work today? Is it too early to call [NAME CENSORED] and was that book really about him and [NAME CENSORED] doing it every which way? I need to know, I have to know, because I live in a City of Literature!
Except I don’t.
Because that person I’ve just described is me, it may be you…and about 2400 other people. Nobody else could give a shit!
Face it, we’re living in Boganville.
Now, I’m not having a latté-fuelled sneer. I myself hail from one of the bogan capitals of New Zealand. In my suburb, we had one of those Video Ezys where all the parking spaces are named after movie stars, but ours – and I swear this is true – had not one, but two spaces labelled ‘Patrick Swayze’. None for Daniel Day-Lewis, two for Patrick Swayze. That’s when you know you’re living in a centre of bogan activity and endeavour.
And that’s where we’re living, here in Melbourne.
Because you could offer the average person in Melbourne all the books in Readings and Borders and Hill of Content – you could say, ‘Right, you can have a look at all of them – or – you can have a look at the new “Stars Without Make-up” issue of New Weekly.’ Which one do you think they’d go for?
Margaret Atwood, fuck off! I want to see Posh Spice getting out of a car, with no pants on.
I remember that when this ‘City of Literature’ nonsense was announced, there was a picture in the paper of a handsome young man with a mane of hair like Michael Chabon’s, and a wayward scarf, sitting atop a knoll in Federation Square, paging thoughtfully through a copy of Patrick White’s Voss.
Now, my guess is, moments after that photo was taken, he had the shit kicked out of him by five bogans, fresh off the Frankston line en route to Hungry Jack’s. That man would have been picking Voss out of his teeth for weeks, and the mobile phone footage would’ve racked up a million hits by the time the ambulance arrived.
Because this is not a City of Books – it’s a City of Bongs, and Football, and Scratchy Tickets, and Internet Porn, and Buying an Illegal Copy of Underbelly Out of Somebody’s Boot in the Car Park of the Dingley Powerhouse.
Oh, sure, it’s a city of some books, but what was the biggest selling book of last year? Was it by Tim Winton? Geraldine Brooks? Peter Carey? No, it was a book about how to remove stains from fabric. How to remove the remnants of a Bacardi Breezer from your best pair of trackypants.
If we were to stage a genuine Melbourne Writers Festival, the big ticket event would be Geoffrey Rush reading mellifluous extracts from the stain-removal book – or the second most popular book of the year – How to Make a Meal Using Only Three Ingredients: VB, hate and Sam Newman’s ballsack.
People in Melbourne don’t want to read books. They want to read about who’s banging Lara Bingle. The only literature they’re really interested in is the literature on the counter at JB Hi-Fi that tells them how much they’ll pay for an even bigger telly, so they can watch Kyle Sandilands making an even bigger cock of himself, just before they slump into unconsciousness, awaking only to buzz in the bloke from Pizza Hut.
If this weren’t the case, that TV show where everyone pretends to have read the new one by Roberto Bolano wouldn’t be hidden away late on Tuesday night on the ABC. It’d be on Channel Nine in prime time, hosted by Daryl Somers and five medical students in blackface.
If this weren’t the case, the ‘literary’ section at your local shopping centre Dymocks wouldn’t be almost entirely filled with books about Mr Darcy, none of which were written by Jane Austen, like Mr Darcy Takes a Wife, The Secret Diaries of Mr Darcy and How To Remove Stains From Mr Darcy’s Incredibly Fulsome Pants.
If this weren’t the case, then A S Byatt would’ve outsold The AFL Diet.
True story: A couple of years ago, I’m in Readings in St Kilda – when it used to be Cosmos – browsing foppishly on a quiet Saturday afternoon – because it’s always quiet in a bookshop – and there’s this couple, swathed in football-related clothing, each with a baby in a pouch on their front, and the woman has suddenly shouted – loudly, shockingly – across the shop to the bloke:
‘Damian, come over here! I have found a book that is better than The Da Vinci Code!’
He’s come shuffling over, going, ‘Bullshit! There is no book – no book – that is better than The Da Vinci Code!’
And she’s said, ‘Well, look at this – The Illustrated Da Vinci Code!’
And he’s looked at it, for five minutes, just turning it over in his hands, going, ‘Fuck me, this is better…cos they’ve done pictures of everything.’
Those are the people who should’ve been in that picture in the paper for ‘Melbourne: City of Literature’.
Melbourne: City of Bogans. Who occasionally read a book – about stains, about diets, about conspiracy theories, about people who were in Underbelly.
They don’t want to read about the dashed hopes of a godless society at the end of an era of greed and excess and moral ambiguity. They want to read about Brendan Fevola, throwing up in an ashtray at Crown Casino.
And you know what? So do I.
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