Monthly Archives: May 2011

Cate Kennedy, the competition entrant’s best friend

Okay, the fantastic Peta from has posted a request for me to speak about Colette, and she went above and beyond to lend me a thick collection of the authors works. While I am going through and reading the stories, I thought I’d just revisit the work of Cate Kennedy. I know this is the third time I’ve spoken about Kennedy on this blog, but for study purposes competition wise, studying her work is the school equivalent of sneaking into your teacher’s office during lunch time and photocopying the answer sheet.

Kennedy’s work shows up everywhere in Australian print compilations. It is no surprise to find a short story of hers in any Australian anthology published in the past ten years. I am surprised that she doesn’t have more of her own story collections in publication. Looking online for some of her work however, I could only find two stories by her. I would think that the online environment could be quite useful for the short story writer. If one could have a few award winning stories around online, I would have thought it would increase sales of work. I know that many copyright holding industries are still trying to get their head around what operating online means, but I would have thought the ability to read short fiction online would lend itself to the form of the short story, perhaps even revive it commercially in some forms.

Of the stories I did find of Kennedy’s online, one is her story, Black Ice, which was published in the New Yorker. Being published in the New Yorker is a tremendous achievement for an Australian writer, but I believe Kennedy has written better than the one they printed. Perhaps the story doesn’t feel completely Australian; it feels more American. Perhaps that is why the New Yorker chose it, and I have difficulty relating to it as much as some of Kennedy’s work that is set in Melbourne.

At any rate, you can read it here,

and it certainly features some of Kennedy’s trade marks, such as her clever similes, and ways of circling round a topic.

Perhaps what makes Kennedy so good to study for competitions, is that she is one of the few writers who restricts herself to under 3000 words, the amount many Australian short stories dictate as the maximum word count. She would have learnt her style from entering many competitions herself, and it shows through. Writing anything under 3000 words can be very difficult as stories tend to demand much more space. In the 3000 words her action is compacted. Sometimes her characters are waiting for what will happen, be it the results of a medical test, or the time when they have to reveal a secret to someone.

Her use of dialogue is particularly good in such a tight space. Her characters talk to each other often, but they never say all that much, as though the mundanity of life is just as important as anything else that could be said. I’ll leave with a link to the only other story of hers I could find online, if anyone knows of some legally accessible free stories by Cate Kennedy online, let everyone know in the comments section. I wish that Kennedy had a website of her own, linking to her work.

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Posted by on May 23, 2011 in Kennedy, Cate, Uncategorized


The Brown Coast – by Wells Tower – from the collection: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

sea cucumber by dimitriasia kopoulos

sea cucumber by dimitriasia kopoulos

Do the same rules apply to ordering the short stories in a collection as apply to ordering tracks on a rock album? It seems that many collections lead with the strongest story first; I wonder if this is because people will read the first story before flicking through the rest.  Is there an expectation that the best story will be in pride of place in the book and it wouldn’t make sense for a publisher to put it anywhere else? Also, the last story in any collection seems important as well, I’ve noticed in two collections that I’ve read recently, that the last story also gives its name to the book.

I’ve been reading Wells Tower’s collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Wells Tower is on the New Yorkers forty writers under forty – quite an influence list.  Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is Towers first collection of short stories, though, like many young writers, he’s been winning short story competitions for years.

The stories in Wells Tower’s book I would figure clock in at around the 7000 – 10000 word mark each. Looking in the publication detail, I discovered that nearly every story in the collection had been previously published in a journals such as The Paris Review, Harpers Magazine and McSweeney’s. There was also a story that had appeared in the New Yorker, though it was about half the length of the others.

The story On the Show, which appeared originally in Harpers Magazine I found particularly interesting. Unlike many stories told from a single viewpoint, the story bounces around numerous characters, who each give their perspective of life as carnies. But when everything is weighed up however, my favourite was The Brown Coast, which was originally featured in The Paris Review.

In the story, a man is living in his uncle’s dilapetated cottage on the coast after his marriage has fallen apart. In between repairing the cottage, he collects interesting sea creatures that become trapped in the local rock pools and puts them in a long glass tank he has in the living room. He befriends a veterinarian and his girlfriend who are holidaying in the neighbourhood and keeps calling his wife hoping for a reconciliation that never comes. The story ends on an image, where the veterinarian’s girlfriend brings around a gift of a sea slug she has found to put in the main character’s glass tank.  He puts the sea slug in with the other animals, but wakes the next day to discover that the sea slug has emitted a poison that has killed all the other sea life in the tank. The veterinarian explains to him that it was a sea cucumber and was “as poisonous as hell.” Not wanting to kill the creature though, the main character takes it down to the water and throws it back in the sea.

It is lovely looking at some longer form stories. It seems having the extra room, lets the author explore more themes. I really enjoyed reading the collection, and found myself carrying it all around Melbourne with me until I got it finished.

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Posted by on May 15, 2011 in Tower, Wells


Donald Barthelme – Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby – From the collection: Forty Stories

Hanged Penguin by Mark Hillary

Hanged Penguin by Mark Hillary - please note, Colby wasn't a penguin, I just liked the picture.

“Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him.”

So begins Donald Barthelme’s short story. The narrator and his friends quite like Colby, but since the decision has been made to hang him, they must go through with it. Still, they wish to make it a classy affair – they will have music and drinks there.

Having never arranged a hanging before, the narrator and his friends struggle with some of the details: how do you build the gibbet? At an expense of four hundred dollars, should they just hang Colby from a tree instead? – it would make for a nice outdoor event.

In the end the plan goes off without a hitch. Colby is hung and it is a lovely occasion.

Donald Barthelme has a distinctive style in many of his stories. He starts with the statement of an absurd idea and works it through to its (il)logical conclusion. In one of his stories, cowboys herd three or four thousand porcupines. In another, the narrator purchases himself a city, complete with occupants, and goes about trying to manage it.

Barthelme’s stories are only short, and are often humorous. They are interesting to read and it is almost startling to read something that isn’t steeped in naturalism or realism. Chekov, Carver, Munro and dozens of others have almost pegged the short story as being reportage.  Reading Barthelme’s stories can initially feel strange to a reader who expects grim reality and scenes of gritty, working class life. Yet, I cannot blame the New Yorker magazine for this influence, as they published many of Barthelme’s pieces.

I tend to only talk about stories on this blog that I like, and I certainly like this one. It only came in at around 2500 words, so it’s also a good one for people to study if they are entering any of the competitions that require small word counts.

Now, there seems to be a wonderful website, where a fan has managed to get permission from Barthelme’s family to publish some of his stories online, including the one I’ve chosen to write about.

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

Here is another, I recommend

The Balloon

And if you just can’t get enough of Barthelme’s work, go here.


Posted by on May 5, 2011 in Barthelme, Donald