Saluting Bryce Courtenay

December 6, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing

I’ll admit, I’ve never read any of the 20 or so books written by Aussie legend Bryce Courtenay, who passed away late last month. I haven’t even seen the movie based on his first and most famous book, The Power of One. All I know is that there the film launched the career of Stephen Dorff, that Daniel Craig played a young Nazi in it, and that there is a “young reader’s edition” of the novel, which must mean it’s a pretty big deal.

A young Daniel Craig as a Nazi in The Power of One

What has prompted me to write this post is the Walkley Award (the highest journalism award in Australia) winning article by Jane Cadzow in the Good Weekend, which provided some fascinating insights into the life of this professional writer and the amount of dedication it requires getting to and staying at the top. Hard work and determination are common themes seen in almost all the success stories I have come across, and it has me wondering if I’ll ever be able to be even half as dedicated as some of these people.

The article paints Courtenay as a fascinating fellow who is probably one of the biggest bullshit artists Australia has ever seen. Even the people closest to him admit that he embellishes (to put it in the kindest way possible), but Cadzow effectively tears apart most of Courtenay’s fanciful claims about his life.

It may be his ability to lie that makes Courtenay such a brilliant storyteller, but it’s his background as an advertising guru that helped him break out from the pack in the first place. As the article says:

When Courtenay decided to become a novelist, his marketing nous stood him in good stead. “There are writers in this country who are better than me,” he says, echoing the words of many a reviewer. But no one disputes that when it comes to pitching a book to the paying public, the former adman is in a class of his own. Who else tests cover designs with focus groups, distributes sample chapters at railway stations and hires sky-writers to emblazon titles high above cities? With one of his novels, he went so far as to launch a tie-in beer (Tommo & Hawk Premium Ale). “Bryce is, beyond anything else, a promoter,” says Hamill. “There are some great authors in Australia, and I know many of them, who won’t get off their bums and sign books in shopping centres.”

Whereas Courtenay is never happier than sitting in-store with a pen in his hand and a queue of fans in front of him. Owen Denmeade, another of his old advertising mates, salutes him for the enthusiasm he brings to the task. How many title pages has he autographed over the years? Denmeade hates to think. “We used to say, if you’ve got an unsigned copy of a Bryce Courtenay book, it’s worth a lot of money.”

Sometimes all you need is a break. Off the back of the success of The Power of One, which he was apparently terrified would fail, Courtenay became one of Australia’s most successful writers, with his books selling 9.5 million volumes (including almost 8 million in Australia) since 1997. In better times, a new Courtenay book would apparently sell 250,000 copies, whereas now it’s around 200,000. That’s simply incredible considering what a small market Australia is.

The other thing about Courtenay that impressed me was his tenacity. He apparently worked 12 hours a day, from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. For you mathematical geniuses out there, that’s 84 hours of writing a week, 4,368 hours of writing a year. Of course, it’s likely he bullshitted about that as well, but the fact of the matter is that he had been launching decently-sized books just about every year. As the article says:

Courtenay takes seven months to write a novel. He starts work the day after Australia Day [January 26] and finishes on August 31, delivering each chapter to Penguin on completion to ensure that the book can be edited, printed and in the shops for the Christmas rush. “The last six books I’ve finished within an hour of each other,” he says, “right to the point of having a courier waiting for the last chapter at the front door.”

To help him keep to such a tight timetable, he employs a full-time researcher, his brother-in-law Bruce Gee. “Like a lot of people, he’s not a terribly quick reader,” says Bruce. “My job is to get information to him in a predigested form.” Also entrusted with checking each day’s output for errors, Bruce points out that he isn’t the only one on the payroll. “People advise us on music, for instance, and on esoteric things like historical railways. All sorts of stuff … Bryce is almost a cottage industry.”

Courtenay’s deteriorating health prevented him from delivering his final book, Jack of Diamonds, on time last year, and the disappointment he expressed is remarkable for a guy who supposedly wouldn’t have had to make another dime had he lived to 100.

Courtenay was inconsolable about missing his first deadline in two decades. “I know how stupid it is,” he says, “but when you have one of those A-type personalities where achievement is important, and you have my kind of background, then … failure is unthinkable.”

Then again, it could be because Courtenay needed the money (though he says money doesn’t interest him), which is a frightening thought for all struggling writers out there. According to his brother-in-law, Courtenay was not as wealthy as might be imagined.

“He’s lost it, given it away, made bad business decisions, whatever.”

So the moral of the story, I suppose is to work really really hard, be a perfectionist, spend extra time marketing your work and take care of your money if you ever make some. In any case, I salute Bryce Courtenay for all he has achieved throughout his life and for being such a great inspiration to all aspiring writers out there.

Cadzow’s full–length article can be found here.

Bryce Courtenay’s final book, Jack of Diamonds

“Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made” – author blasts The Reader

February 16, 2009 in Entertainment, Movie Reviews

Surely there have been worse films about the Holocaust than The Reader

Surely there have been worse films about the Holocaust than The Reader

Author/Journalist says ‘We don’t need another ‘redemptive’ Holocaust Movie

Ron Rosenbaum, a Jewish-American journalist and author who spent years researching Adolf Hitler, has slammed Stephen Daldry’s The Reader as the “The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made” just a couple of weeks out from the Academy Awards.

Have a look his rant/article entitled ‘Don’t give an Oscar to The Reader’ here.  What do you think?  In it, Rosenbaum says: “This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution. The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it’s a “Holocaust film,” it must be worthy of approbation, end of story.”

He then goes on to tear apart the film and its central character, Hanna Schmitz with a lot of exclamation marks, and also takes a few jabs at other Holocaust-related films such as Valkyrie, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and the “disgraceful” Life Is Beautiful.  In short, Rosenbaum doesn’t like The Reader because of the message he perceives it sends.

Who is this guy?

Just where did this dude pop out from?  Does his opinion hold any value?  I was determined to find out, so I looked him up.  According to his Wikipedia entry (and other sources), Rosenbaum is best known for his critically acclaimed book, “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.”

According to Rosenbaum, The Reader somehow attempts to exculpate Germans from the Nazi era and post-Nazi era.  Is he reading too much into this?  Did he simply not get the movie?  Or is he so narrow minded as to think that any movie which even mentions the Holocaust needs to be solely focused on the evil and brutality of those involved and any suggestion that they may have been remotely human equates to exculpating them?  Isn’t understanding the best way to ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens again?

It’s clear from the way he blasted the Holocaust-related films such as Valkyrie, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas (which he hasn’t even seen yet) and Life Is Beautiful suggests that Rosenbaum believes that there is no place in cinema for any fictional films that touch on the Holocaust in any way, and even if there is, all it should do is condemn condemn condemn.  Any film that attempts to understand the actions of those complicit in the Holocaust is unforgivable to him.  For a guy that dedicated years of his life to ‘explaining Hitler’ through researching the origins of evil himself (and wrote a book about it), what he has said strikes me as extraordinarily ironic and moronic. 

Rosenbaum’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t believe viewers of films are capable of making up their own minds.  He’s concerned that films like The Reader will brainwash people into believing that the Holocaust was somehow excusable.  He even links the film to Holocaust revisionism and Holocaust denial.  This has clouded his ability to judge the film properly and without overwhelming bias. 

An example is Rosenbaum’s scathing view that Hanna’s illiteracy is the film’s way of excusing her for the unspeakable crimes she committed.  To him, it’s an obvious metaphor for the Germans who pleaded ignorance during the time Jews were being sent to their deaths.  What he fails to see is that the film actually tackles the issue of German ignorance head on.  The scene in which one of the students has an outburst in class sends a clear message that there was no way people didn’t know about what was going on.  As the student implied: everyone, including his parents and teachers, knew but did nothing.  Just because that particular student appeared clueless was just the method of getting the point across, but Rosenbaum completely misconstrues it as exculpating all Germans who pleaded ignorance.  It actually does the opposite.  Further, there is a subtle but enormous difference between ‘exculpating’ and ‘understanding’ – personally, I think the film walked the line well – allowing viewers to understand Hanna’s story and make up their own minds about her.  It’s unfortunate that Rosenbaum couldn’t pick up the difference and rubbishes the entire film for it.

I’d have no problem if he hated the movie because he thought it just wasn’t very good, but his poor reasoning for calling it “The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made” simply demonstrates that while he might know a lot about the Holocaust, he doesn’t have a clue when it comes to movies.

How will the comments affect the film’s Oscar chances?

The Reader is nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Stephen Daldry and Best Actress for Kate Winslet.  Out of all its nominations, only Kate Winslet’s portrayal of Hanna Schmitz is a favourite to win (thanks to Slumdog Millionaire).  So how are Rosenbaum’s comments likely to affect Kate’s odds of winning her first Oscar statuette after missing out 5 times previously (thrice for Best Actress, twice for Best Supporting Actress)?  Chances are, not very much.

Oscar voting closes tomorrow (17 February 2009), in time for the 22 February ceremony.  Though the critique was published on the 9th of February, it didn’t really gather much press until the last couple of day.   Therefore, despite Rosenbaum’s plea for voters not to cast their vote for the film (and presumably, Kate Winslet), it appears he has left it a little too late.  Even if it did manage to persuade some voters, it’s unlikely that Kate, who has already won most awards on offer thus far, will miss out this year. 

It should be recalled that this is not the first time that the film has been criticised.  When The Reader first came out, the film was condemned by film critic Charlie Finch (unsurprisingly, a friend of Rosenbaum), who complained: “It trivialises the Holocaust. What is repellent is how Daldry uses Kate Winslet’s nubile body to create sympathy for a repellent character. Daldry avoided showing the horror of her crimes – instead we have Holocaust chic which is all about sex, not mass murder.”

This guy was obviously paying too much attention to the sex and Kate’s “nubile body” to have noticed what the film was about.  While the first half of the film does contain a fair amount of nudity and sex, how the attractiveness of one’s body stirs up sympathy remains a strange concept to me.  Finch’s comments caused a little bit of media attention at the time, but they quickly died down and Kate Winslet went on to sweep most of the awards.

I can still recall when negative press about the accuracy of The Hurricane cost Denzel Washington his Oscar and when controversies surrounding Brokeback Mountain‘s subject matter may have prevented Heath Ledger from his.  But in neither of those cases were they as clear cut favourites to win as Kate Winslet is this year.  Most people simple believe it is her time.  I do too.