This piece originally appeared in The Age

It was not a good year for writers or language, and a particularly bloody one for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, it was the deadliest on record since its first yearly report in 1995. 88 journalists killed, 2,000 threatened or attacked and 144 bloggers dead because of their work. This murderous spike has much to do with Syria and Assad’s unholy crusade against his people, though if you’re a journalist in Pakistan or Somalia your life expectancy isn’t great either.

Back home, thousands of journalists lost their jobs—or were told they would—as the industry slouched towards reinvention but couldn’t shake the smell of death. 2013 will yield more signs of the forms and success of that reinvention.

Meanwhile in Parliament this year, rancour trumped truth and eloquence, proving that our leaders were capable of saying things sillier than “we are us.” Elsewhere, 50 Shades of Grey—which works neither as pornography or storytelling—became drearily ubiquitous. Pericles and the Marquis de Sade rolled in their graves.

We lost Gore Vidal at the age of 86, though many would say we lost him years ago to conspiracy theories and titanic cynicism. But Vidal should also be remembered as a first-rate essayist—alongside Montaigne and Mencken—and for a sublime, if eagerly self-conscious, wit.

Vidal arrived on the scene with the “small, hard” novel Williwaw set during the Second World War which was, unlike his rival Norman Mailer’s triumphant debut, about men on the periphery of combat. From there, Vidal wrote some brilliant historical novels about his country, some decent plays, and a brave and scandalising book about a young man who discovers he is gay. It was the sort of incendiary he loved lobbing at the uptight and hypocritical.

While justly remembered for his bon mots, it would be a shame if history reduced to Vidal to a jukebox of aphorisms. His earlier essays abound with wisdom, and I’ll forever return to his 1960 piece which contains these lines: “Not Christ, not Marx, not Freud, despite their pretensions, has the final word to say about the fact of being human. And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities…”

We lost a very different writer this year in Bryce Courtenay. Since his mega-selling debut The Power of One, Courtenay had been derided as a populist, code for dilettante and hack. Courtenay wore the dismissal as a badge of honour, as he did when I saw him speak last year in our capital. With a captivating, unnerving energy—remarkable for anybody, least of all an ailing, elderly man—Courtenay cheerfully embraced the term “populist” as he described his notional reader: “She’s possibly single, with two kids. In the morning she doesn’t have time to think as she readies the breakfast, irons, then drives the kids to school before heading to a long, hard job that’s unrewarding. When she finally slips into bed that night she reaches over to her bedside table and picks up one of my books and for the hour before sleep she’s transported another world.”

The audience—comprised almost entirely of liberal historians—didn’t seem convinced, but Courtenay didn’t give a fig. In his own way, he was a rebel.

If there was one thing I distrusted about Courtenay, it was that he never did shake the sheen of advertising. A successful ad man before writing books—he was the guy behind Louie the Fly—Courtenay appeared in his own TV commercials shilling his debut. It was audacious. Ever since, Courtenay never forgot the power of image, and spoke from an unchanging—and contested—script about his own past. Perhaps, though, these are churlish comments in his death. In the final tally, there’s ample evidence he stirred a great many people.

In May, we lost Maurice Sendak, the revered author and illustrator of children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was a prickly depressive and unusually thoughtful, whose kids’ books are weird, wily and beautiful translations of melancholy. In his dark tales, Sendak celebrated the imagination, believing the rich dream lives of children might be the truest things on Earth. He never condescended his young readers, and accompanied his words with lush, lovingly detailed drawings.

Like Vidal and Courtenay, Sendak was complicated and formidable, and his books will probably be read for as long as we have children. Like Vidal and Courtenay, Sendak worshipped the imagination and demanded that we do, too. As we approach an election year here, we can only hope that our political language restores ideas and imagination above rancour. Hope springs eternal.

3 Responses to 2012

  1. Paul says:

    It is ideals well presented, that shift attitudes and even culture, whether the form be writing, speeches, music, theatre, films or painting (software?). It is interesting to me that those who have been most successful in changing culture through the presentation of good ideas have been difficult personalities. Perhaps that is because it takes a certain bloody-mindedness and arrogance to keep pushing a great idea in the face of overwhelming resistance from the rest of us. It is much more comfortable to shout out truisms or what is already the accepted cannon. On the other hand, there is nothing as irksome as bad ideas presented with the same bloody-mindedness and arrogance. News Corporation’s publications come to mind.

    • Marty says:

      I think that’s fair. Self-belief is often there, has to be there in order to keep going, through the rejections and the criticism. I think also that, for the greats (in whatever field) there’s more than just innate ability, but an enthusiasm (bordering on a personality disorder) to exercise that talent, to improve it. I’ve always thought that writing isn’t a terribly natural thing to do, and to do it well is to seclude yourself unnaturally. For me, I can’t be away from loved ones or the pub for that long…


  2. Virginia says:

    Vidal embodied the seclusion you talk about – the coldness. But that coldness made him a lesser novelist and probably a greater essayist. The odious (but quondam talented) Martin Amis had a good insight about Vidal. Something along the lines of (sorry, the book’s at home) ‘He is too clever to be a successful politician, too clever to be an first-rate novelist. Essays are what he’s good at. You can’t be too clever for them’.

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