Interview with Robert Manne, editor of The Best Australian Essays 2013What do you look for in an essay?
Having read several hundred essays in preparing this collection, I have come to realise that what I most appreciate is the quality of directness, the presence of an authorial voice with something urgent to tell us about. Some of the essays I most admired made me laugh out loud. Some involved reflections on one or another aspect of the author’s life. Some involved criticism of literature, film, television or the visual arts. Some involved the mounting of an argument on a question about the past or the future. But what all had in common was a sense of immediacy and a determination to communicate something that truly mattered.
How do you define an essay, and has this changed since editing The Best Australian Essays 2013?
I have generally found the discussions that stipulate what truly constitutes an essay both tedious and unhelpful. My beginning point was to regard any reasonably brief piece of non-fiction prose as an essay. It was not too long, however, before this changed. Because of the pressures of university life today, where academic preferment is based on “refereed” publications, many pieces in the traditional Australian “small magazines” are now scholarly or quasi-scholarly articles from which the authors’ personality has been erased. For different reasons, it is the same with many of the distinguished examples of long-form journalism that I read which were concerned with conveying information but with little more. Neither the quasi-academic articles nor the pieces of high-quality journalism possessed what I came to think the minimal requirement of an essay—a truly distinctive individual voice.
What are some of your favourite or noteworthy pieces in the collection?
It is a little invidious to attempt to answer this question; after all, the thirty or so essays were chosen from several hundred possibilities. Nonetheless, there are several essays in the collection that I am either keen for others to read or curious about others’ responses—Kim Mahood’s ‘The River’, which renders one of history’s indigenous massacres present to us in an altogether unexpected way; Guy Rundle’s ‘La Mort Boheme of London’s Soho No More’, which moves from the death of a beloved bag lady to meditation on how, as a young fogey, the author finds himself mourning the passing of worlds he had never known; Sybille Smith’s ‘Growing Up in Two Languages’, which allows us to understand, through an astonishing final metaphor, what it is like to come home to a native tongue; Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Sally’, which introduces us to the excruciating terrors of courtship in a new land; Murray Bail’s ‘Anecdotes’, where some apparently slight tales about Australian artists brought tears of laughter to my eyes.
And all the others …
What do you hope people take away with them after reading the essays?
Strange to say, in making my final choice I noticed that I had become a little proprietorial, even a little defensive, about all the essays I had chosen. Even though the essays are very different, overwhelmingly my hope with all of them is that they will provide the reader with pleasure—of experiencing one or another aspect of the world a little more vividly, in the company of another sensibility whose honesty, even more than their intelligence or elegance, they feel able to trust. I hope these essays will set readers’ pulses racing. I hope they will make them laugh, cry, reflect, think.
The Best Australian Essays 2013 is available now in print and ebook.
Buy The Best Australian Stories, Essays and Poems 2013 from your local bookshop and receive a free Black Inc. canvas tote bag.