Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2012

Read Ramona Koval's introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2012.

When looking for wisdom, it’s a good idea to range widely.

Writing in the years after the Great Crash of ’29, James Thurber noted that company heads had started to speak double-talk in low, muffled tones ‘because nobody knew what was going to happen and nobody understood what had.’

In contrast, the voices in these essays are strong. The language is direct and there is confidence in its expression. It made me wonder about what had happened in the year to elicit such certainty.

In politics, big moves detonated big responses. While the ‘coup’ against Kevin Rudd still smarts in some quarters of the Labor Party, there were arguments and counter-arguments about why it happened and whether it was inevitable. Two essays approach the nub of the matter from different sides of the fence. There was much analysis of big personalities. David Marr’s essay on the gladiatorial Tony Abbott may well make waves beyond 2012, as did his previous dissection of Rudd, which turned, for a while at least, into a political autopsy.

The Australian economy was buoyant, and what amount of this we could sheet home to the mining boom was the subject of much speculation. Gina Rinehart, one of the country’s biggest mining speculators and the world’s richest woman, was in the public eye more than usual – and possibly more than desirable. Folktales and facts are presented in an essay on the intriguing mining matriarch.

The drought broke. There were arguments over water in the Murray-Darling Basin, and an orchestrated campaign against the findings of the world’s climate scientists that global warming requires an urgent response. The newly ubiquitous Ms Rinehart used some pocket money to promote those who deny the obvious.

In an intriguing deluge of interest, animals were in the minds of a range of Australian writers. Here are essays on killing cattle in Indonesian abattoirs, on shooting rabbits for food, on the wily mind of a dog, and on the thrill of horse riding and jumping and writing about movement when illness binds you to the earth.

It was the year that saw the exoneration of Lindy Chamberlain for the death of her daughter Azaria. The dingo did it and now we all know. The decision was a long time coming, and the essay is from a close observer of the sorry story.

Our only living Nobel Prize-winning writer analysed the poetry of our unofficial poet laureate, and was both stern and admiring.

We remembered giants of film criticism, music and radio documentaries. We analysed pornography with verve and humour; we scrutinised our obsession with cooking programs and gave in to the seductions of fashion.

In our families, mothers wrote of their passionate engagement with their children – born and unborn. We thought about sisters and fathers, and of wild best friends. We finally came to an understanding about just who calls the shots in remote Indigenous communities. All these essays are gifts to us of honesty and the struggle to be fair.

This year we begin The Best Australian Essays with two short pieces which illuminate each other, on men and friendship, drinking and fame. We end with an essay in the best tradition of the form, taking us by the hand as we are shown the night sky in the High Tatra mountains of Slovakia, and then, via the work of Gershom Scholem on the eighteenth-century Polish mystic Jacob Frank, transported to the early days of the Western Desert art movement of Australia, and to the religious revolutions that can be found along the way.

I have adored reading across the vast terrain of interests that our writers have explored, transported by their words and the energy of their voices. Here’s to your enjoyment of the year as seen by the Best Australian Essayists of 2012.

Ramona Koval

The Best Australian Essays 2012 is out now at all good print and electronic bookshops. 

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