What happens when a successful novelist publishes their first short story collection? This essay answers this question in relation to Christos Tsiolkas’s Merciless Gods (2014). While Tsiolkas has received increasing critical attention in recent years, there has been less interest in Tsiolkas’s short stories compared to his novels. Over the past decade or so it has become commonplace to refer to Tsiolkas as a ‘household name’ in the Australian literary world, but primarily as a novelist and secondly as an essayist and political commentator (Gildersleeve 6). Tsiolkas’s reputation as a novelist was secured largely by the release of his fourth novel The Slap (2008), which won or was shortlisted for a variety of literary awards in Australia. In interviews Tsiolkas tends to identify himself as a novelist: ‘I think in terms of the novel’, he said more than once when promoting Merciless Gods (Cathcart). In contrast, Tsiolkas has said that he feels ‘very inadequate’ at writing short stories (Vasilakakos 53), and that the short story is ‘not a form that comes naturally’ to him because he has to ‘convince a reader of worlds and experiences’ in the space of ‘a few paragraphs’ (Romei).
My argument in this essay is that the stories in Merciless Gods help us better understand two features of Tsiolkas’s fiction before and after The Slap: his writing style, and his use of first-person male narrators. Part of my method involves looking at Tsiolkas’s stories in their original publication contexts. Merciless Gods contains fifteen stories, with eight stories having previously been published between 1995 and 2014. Some of these republished stories date back to the earliest years of Tsiolkas’s writing and have a more varied and interesting provenance than the single author collection of the successful novelist. The publication circumstances of these stories are less visible when they are repackaged in Merciless Gods but are essential to understanding Tsiolkas’s writing in the years before his reputation as a novelist becomes established. In retracing the publication contexts of Tsiolkas’s stories, I place particular emphasis on how his stories have been edited in Merciless Gods. This approach involves taking details and subtleties in Tsiolkas’s writing perhaps more seriously than has been the case in discussions of his work to date. The benefit of studying the editing history of these stories is that this approach highlights what happens to the style of stories from various points in Tsiolkas’s career when they are republished as part of a single author collection. Tsiolkas’s writing style has been consistently criticised by book reviewers throughout his career, and I suggest that the post-publication editing of Merciless Gods should be understood in the context of these criticisms.
The editing history of the Merciless Gods stories also demonstrates in a very literal way ‘how Christos Tsiolkas has developed over the years’, as Peter Craven writes in his review of the collection. Tsiolkas has been writing for long enough that there is now a sizeable body of criticism that seeks to identify ‘continuities and discontinuities’ across his fiction (Treagus 1). For example, James Ley takes a retrospective and comparative view of Tsiolkas’s writing when he says that Merciless Gods shows ‘the extent to which Tsiolkas has been refining a consistent set of tropes and symbols’ since ‘the very beginning’, among them the ‘many slaps and blows’ of his characters. My own interpretation of Merciless Gods focuses on the development of a specific type of narrative in Tsiolkas’s fiction: the first-person story told by a disaffected young male narrator. Readers of Tsiolkas will associate this type of narrative with Loaded (1995), and his early short stories are told from the same perspective. Comparing stories from different points in Tsiolkas’s career demonstrates his sustained interest in the first-person young male story. Equally, this approach puts us in a better position to make sense of new developments in Tsiolkas’s writing from The Slap onwards, including his increased focus on female protagonists and cultivation of third-person narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse.
The final section of this essay turns to the structural dynamics of Australian short story publishing in the past few decades. Contextualising Tsiolkas’s stories in relation to authorial publishing subsidies, the popularity of multi-author theme anthologies, and the expansion of university creative writing programs shows us that Tsiolkas’s path to Merciless Gods is not unusual for a writer who came of age in the 1990s and achieved success as a novelist in the following decade, even though these dynamics are not necessarily the same for Australian short story writers today.
Style and the Editing of Tsiolkas’s Early Short Stories
One of the difficulties Tsiolkas faced in compiling his short stories into Merciless Gods was deciding what to do with his earliest fiction. As Tsiolkas describes it, short story collections present authors with a retrospective dilemma: either ‘stay honest’ and republish early stories in their original form, or ‘rewrite’ early stories from the present perspective. Tsiolkas says that he felt obliged to keep his early stories as close to their original versions as possible in Merciless Gods, while acknowledging that ‘there was some editing involved’ when preparing the collection (Cathcart). The most extensively edited stories in Merciless Gods are its four earliest stories, which were originally published at the time of Tsiolkas’s first two novels, Loaded (1995) and The Jesus Man (1999): ‘Civil War’ (1995), ‘Saturn’s Return’ (1996, retitled ‘Saturn Return’ in Merciless Gods), ‘Hung Phat!’ (1996), and ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ (1997). Dozens of lexical revisions have been made to each of these stories, with streamlined phrasing, shortened descriptions of some settings and physical actions, and synonyms replacing many nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. No new scenes have been added, although parts of many scenes have been rewritten. The result is that these edited stories are more or less identical to their originally published versions at the level of plot, themes and characterisation, at the same time as a fairly laborious revision of Tsiolkas’s language appears to have taken place.
The following scene from ‘Civil War’ is typical of how the language of Tsiolkas’s early stories has been edited. This scene occurs near the middle of the story, as the hitchhiking male narrator hesitantly walks into the truck drivers’ section of an outback roadhouse. The original version of this scene emphasises the narrator’s discomfort when in the company of the truck drivers:
A group of four men are sitting around a table drinking coffee. One of them is the driver of the rig I’m travelling on but he fails to acknowledge my wave. I blush as I walk towards the coffee urn. I’m conscious of every swing of my shoulders, aware of the heaviness of my T-shirt, dark jeans and runners. (280)
The same information is conveyed in the edited version:
Four men are sitting around a table. One of them is my driver but he fails to acknowledge my wave. I blush as I shuffle towards the coffee urn, conscious of my slender weak limbs, of the heaviness of my T-shirt, dark jeans and runners. (234)
The edited version removes tautologies (‘a group of four men’ is changed to ‘four men’) along with information that the reader could infer from the scene’s context (that ‘the driver’ is the truck driver who picked up the hitchhiking narrator, and that the men are already drinking the coffee from the nearby urn). Describing the ‘walk’ of the narrator’s running shoes as a ‘shuffle’ adds some nuance to his experience of being out of place at the roadhouse, and the addition of ‘slender weak limbs’ highlights the narrator’s physical insecurity among men he will admit to feeling culturally different from yet sexually aroused by. None of these revisions substantially changes the original scene, which centres on the truck drivers seeing the narrator as an unlikely ally in a white uprising against Aboriginal land claims.
The editing of ‘Civil War’ and Tsiolkas’s other early stories can be understood using G. Thomas Tanselle’s distinction between vertical and horizontal revision. According to Tanselle, vertical revision ‘aims at altering the purpose, direction, or character of a work, thus attempting to make a different sort of work out of it’. In contrast, horizontal revision ‘aims at intensifying, refining, or improving the work as then conceived (whether or not it succeeds in doing so), thus altering the work in degree but not in kind’ (193). Tsiolkas’s revisions to his early stories are obviously horizontal, in that he grants himself considerable license to tinker with his words and sentences without changing a story’s original conception. Any improvements to the edited stories in Merciless Gods are fairly minimal, making a sentence slightly clearer or bringing out the theme of a story in a new way. In practical terms, Tsiolkas’s comment about authors ‘staying honest’ to their early fiction allows him to rewrite or delete information when editing one of his previously published stories, but not often to add new information to an old story.
This means that the editing of Tsiolkas’s early stories is essentially stylistic in nature, with each story undergoing extensive changes to its phrasing and expression. Tanselle addresses this form of horizontal revision when he says that the number of revisions in a text is generally not a good indication of what these revisions mean: ‘One author might make 3000 changes in his selection of adjectives and adverbs, for instance – and perhaps improve his book stylistically – without altering his original conception of the work at all; another might make only ten revisions in key passages and change the whole direction of the book’ (198). While Tsiolkas’s revisions do not alter the original conception of his stories in Tanselle’s intentionalist sense, his willingness to make stylistic changes to some of his earliest published fiction is still worth thinking about. Style has long been considered one of the least appealing qualities of Tsiolkas’s novels, as I have suggested elsewhere (Azzopardi 3–4). In the reception of Tsiolkas’s style, Ethan Rutherford’s querying of The Slap is typical: ‘where, my gosh, was the editor for this book? (Awkward prose and redundancies abound)’. Nick Major takes a similar view of Tsiolkas’s short fiction when he writes that the Merciless Gods stories are ‘shocking only in their lack of nuance and clunky dialogue’. Other reviewers complained about the style of specific stories in the collection. Susan Lever writes that Tsiolkas’s ‘young male’ stories tend to be his most ‘predictable’, and James Ley suggests that Tsiolkas’s early stories are ‘apprentice work’ due to the ‘undergraduate pretentiousness’ of some of their language. These comments repeat longstanding criticisms that book reviewers have made about the style of every one of Tsiolkas’s novels from Loaded to Damascus. Reviews of Tsiolkas’s second novel The Jesus Man were especially critical of the book’s style, which Cameron Woodhead pointedly accused of ‘sloppiness and inadequate editing’. Kathleen Fallon’s review of The Jesus Man took issue with expressions such as ‘he revved hard, and journeyed home’ (85), concluding that ‘editors should never let these sorts of overblown and undercooked affectations see the light of day’ (32). Tsiolkas may have been referencing these negative reviews when he said in an interview that ‘The Jesus Man was rushed, I wish I had spent more time on it’ before its publication (Meyer).
These negative reviews provide a suggestive context for the editing of Merciless Gods, given that in preparing the collection Tsiolkas did receive a second chance to revise stories published at about the same time as The Jesus Man. With this in mind, it is tempting to treat Tsiolkas’s revisions to his early stories as his belated response to criticisms that book reviewers have made of his writing style. Ley is referring to the edited version of ‘Civil War’ when he notes the ‘undergraduate pretentiousness’ of Tsiolkas’s early stories, with the stylistic tendency he is identifying even more apparent in the original version. The original story introduces the truck driver as ‘suffering profusely from the glare of a merciless sun’ (274), changed simply to ‘ravaged by sun’ in the edited version (228). Another revision in ‘Civil War’ makes the hitchhiking narrator’s language more consistent, when the dead animals he notices by the side of the road are described as ‘Twelve roos. Eight wombats’ (232) instead of the ‘Twelve kangaroos. A dozen wallabies’ of the original story (277–78). This revision makes more sense in that there is no obvious reason why the original story represents the same amount as both ‘twelve’ and ‘a dozen’. There is also a grim logic in revising the ‘kangaroos’ and ‘wallabies’ of the original story, since it is not clear how the narrator is able to differentiate between these two ‘smashed’ animals from his vantage point in the speeding truck (278).
Not all revisions to Tsiolkas’s phrasing and expression can be accounted for in relation to style alone. In particular, some of the additions to ‘Civil War’ appear motivated by the story’s theme of racial difference. In the original story the white narrator notices a ‘photo of a very old woman’ stuck to a bedroom wall (277), with the edited version adding the word ‘Indigenous’ to this description (231). This addition makes it clearer that the story’s narrator has just had casual sex with a young Aboriginal man, and so further distances the narrator from the white truck drivers he encounters at the roadhouse. The edited version also substitutes ‘boongs’ (235) for ‘Aboriginals’ (281) when one of the truck drivers complains that white Australians have been disadvantaged by native title legislation. This makes the racism behind the truck driver’s grievances more inescapable than in the original story. These revisions highlight that the apathetic narrator lives at a time of increased white anxiety toward Australia’s Indigenous population, which makes the narrator’s silence among the truck drivers even more uncomfortable. Conversely, other revisions relating to skin colour have a more ambiguous effect. In ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ it is not immediately clear why ‘a cop is running after some black kid’ (72) is changed to ‘a cop is running after some white kid’ in a description of a late-night television show (159). None of the principal characters are racially marked, and substituting ‘white kid’ for ‘black kid’ has no obvious connection to the events or themes of the story.
Tsiolkas’s Young Male Stories
The editing of Merciless Gods has an additional bearing on Tsiolkas’s preference for first-person male narrators in his early fiction. In Loaded and the four early Merciless Gods stories, Tsiolkas’s narrators closely resemble each other in their character traits and social position: each narrator is a disaffected, urban-dwelling young man telling a story about himself. Tsiolkas elaborates on this characteristic feature of his fiction in the ‘Author’s Note’ to the earlier publication of ‘Hung Phat!’ in Below the Waterline. Below the Waterline is an anthology of Australian short fiction that asked contributors to write a note explaining ‘the story behind the story’ (1). Tsiolkas’s note explains that the central friendship in ‘Hung Phat!’ has an autobiographical origin that he wanted to refashion when writing the story: ‘in the story the man became straight, the woman a lesbian. I think that in writing the story I wanted to experiment with different voices, a little sick of being consistently identified as a “poofter” writer’ (146). Tsiolkas wrote this in 1999, and it is notable that he is already conscious of being typecast. But while ‘Hung Phat!’ departs from Tsiolkas’s other early stories in making its young male protagonist heterosexual, the story retains the first-person narrative perspective of Tsiolkas’s early fiction. This points to a tension in Tsiolkas’s early writing between wanting to explore ‘different voices’ and retaining the familiar voice of the young male narrator.
This is important because the ‘young male’ stories of Tsiolkas’s early fiction, in Susan Lever’s phrase, have had a lasting influence on his writing. Tsiolkas’s next novels after Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe also feature a young male narrator but include long stretches of third-person narrative. In The Jesus Man, the third-person narrator is generically associated with the novel’s multigenerational chronicle of the Stefano family. The third-person narrator knows more about the Stefanos than any one family member, including Louie, whose personal reminiscences frame the novel. The third-person narrator of Dead Europe also has access to information that no individual character in the novel possesses, drawing on community superstition and folk wisdom in the chapters set in a Greek village before and during the Second World War. Dead Europe’s third-person chapters display a more fantasmatic epistemology than the travelogue sections of the novel narrated by Isaac in the present day. It is not until The Slap that Tsiolkas decisively moves away from the young male stories of his early work, though it should be remembered that The Slap began its life as a first-person novel narrated by Hector. In the early draft of The Slap published in Overland, Hector is surprisingly similar to the disaffected male protagonists of Tsiolkas’s early fiction in a way he will not be in the published version of the novel (‘Hector’). In addition, the published version of The Slap is not told by Hector but a third-person narrator who is not identified as a character in the story. The use of third-person heterodiegetic narration coincides with a broadening of The Slap’s demographic range. Among the eight principal characters in The Slap, the only disaffected young man is Richie, the confused high-school student who is secretly attracted to Hector. Compared to Richie and the young men of Tsiolkas’s early stories, the problems facing Hector and his adult cousin Harry are those of comfortable middle age and not alienated youth. There are limits to The Slap’s diversity (the novel’s principal characters all belong to the suburban middle class, for instance), but in organising the novel around eight characters who are male and female, young and old, gay and straight, Australian and non-Australian, The Slap is the first real candidate in Tsiolkas’s writing for the story of ‘different voices’ identified in the ‘Author’s Note’ to ‘Hung Phat!’
Tsiolkas’s young male stories in Merciless Gods are more limited in their storytelling and character demographics compared to The Slap. But the editing of these stories points to other changes in how Tsiolkas uses narrators. The original version of ‘Civil War’ begins with the hitchhiking narrator justifying why he is telling his story:
I am trying to explain that this journey I’m making is based completely on faith. I am making a journey in the hope, and contrary to all my experience and expectation, that somewhere in the desert I will find the will to live. (274)
These sentences have been deleted from the edited version. The narrator in the original story doubles as an interpreter of the story, who tells the reader in advance what he hopes his hitchhiking will achieve. By deleting the narrator’s earnest preamble, the edited version leaves it to the reader to infer the narrator’s intentions based on the episodes of the story. This is broadly consistent with Hannah Sullivan’s discussion of authorial deletion patterns in The Work of Revision. Sullivan writes that ‘the deletion of explanatory material’ has come to be equated with literary value in the reception of modernist works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Summarising this editing tradition, Sullivan says that ‘By shearing away the contextual frames that tell us who is speaking, or how two images are to be related, excisive revisers leave interpretive gaps that the reader has to fill’ (102). I have suggested that Tsiolkas’s deletions to all of his early stories are lexical rather than structural, keeping the original plot of each story intact while removing the occasional stray word or sentence. But even these piecemeal deletions affect how Tsiolkas’s first-person narrators address the reader. The gaps in the edited version of ‘Civil War’ are not about ‘who is speaking’ in Sullivan’s modernist sense, but rather in the type of information that a first-person narrator is likely to communicate to the reader. In other words, Tsiolkas’s deletions affect what counts as relevant to a story’s narration and what, quite literally, goes without saying. This is true of other sentences that have been deleted from ‘Civil War’. The edited version deletes the sentence ‘Slowly, my eyes wandered around the space’ from the description of the young Aboriginal man’s bedroom since this information is already implied by subsequent sentences (277). Later in the story the man dies of a heroin overdose. On discovering his body, the narrator in the original story says ‘He did not look dead when I found him lying against the bedroom wall’ (281). This is deleted from the edited version, where this scene begins with the sentence ‘At first I thought he was asleep’ (236). These deletions produce a narrator who is more selective in what he communicates and less inclined to describe everything that happens.
‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ and the Body
Other than his style, the most frequent criticisms of Tsiolkas are that he tries to shock readers with gratuitous obscenities and provocations (Major), that his materialist interest in physical sensation is expressed in tedious sex and masturbation scenes (Denes), and that his writing lacks the humour needed to balance how seriously some of his male characters take themselves (Lever). Reviewers who praised Merciless Gods might counter these criticisms by pointing to a compensatory ‘restraint’ (Craven) and ‘deeply moving and tender current’ (McMillan) that distinguishes these short stories from Tsiolkas’s novels. To my mind, the brevity of Tsiolkas’s stories often exposes the limitations of his early writing. Criticisms that book reviewers have made of Tsiolkas’s novels apply especially to ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’, the weakest of the early young male stories republished in Merciless Gods. This story depicts a young man’s confused sexual encounter with another man he meets at a house party. The story is also narrated by the young man, who recounts the hours before the party in what James Ley calls ‘an affectless registering of details and actions’. The narrator’s lack of affect means that he has limited verbal resources to describe what he experiences as a sexual turning point in his young life, with the story’s central sex scene represented in a style resembling stream of consciousness. For all the earnestness of this very Tsiolkasian scene of male sexual discovery, the shift to stream of consciousness in the middle of the story reads as the contrivance of an inexperienced fiction writer:
I stroked his hair, his face, and
we were kissing and
his mouth was harsh, not a girl’s mouth, and his body
was hard as it pressed against
me, covering me, but the skin was tender, like touching
the underneath of bark
and I thought a few times, as we were making love,
fuck, it’s a man, this is a man (68–69)
It is telling that Tsiolkas appears not to have been more tempted to revise this scene when preparing Merciless Gods. The only change to the edited version of this passage is the substitution of ‘the skin was tender’ with ‘the skin was just so soft’ (155). Both versions of this scene temporarily break with the story’s paragraphing and punctuation conventions, imitating the narrator’s perceptual disorientation as he fumbles through his first homosexual experience. The shift to stream of consciousness stands out when it appears in Merciless Gods mainly because Tsiolkas is no longer as reliant on narrative contrivances to convey what his characters are thinking and feeling. It is true that his later novels also make use of mimetic techniques from time to time. For example, the ending of Barracuda narrates Danny’s childhood experience of swimming with his father using a child’s simple sentences and limited vocabulary, nostalgically evoking a world untouched by the pressures of competitive swimming (509–13). Reading this scene alongside ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ shows that Tsiolkas has always been willing to selectively experiment with his style and storytelling to describe heightened physical experiences. But a more revealing comparison is between ‘Jessica Lange’ and the scene in The Slap where Connie drunkenly loses her virginity at a party, since the content and setting of this scene make it almost a heterosexual retelling of the earlier short story. The difference between the short story and novel is that Connie’s first time having sex is narrated without any commensurate change to the novel’s stylistic and storytelling protocols. The Slap remains in the third-person even as its language is selectively shaped by characters’ subjective impressions, as occurs here with Connie:
This was how it was going to be. She was drunk. I’m not going to throw up, she ordered herself. She touched his skin. She had to remember how soft his skin felt. She touched his singlet. She would remember that it was coarse, a blend of cotton and polyester, the huge red number 3 across its front. She would remember the flowers on the ceiling, the reclining Buddha, the smell of the hash. She must write all this down when she got home tonight. She must remember to record everything, everything in her journal. (207)
There is no equivalent to this kind of representation in ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ or Tsiolkas’s other early young male stories, where a first-person narrator tends to have greater difficulty communicating his physical experiences in a sustained way. The presence of free indirect discourse in this passage from The Slap is especially noticeable, allowing the third-person narrator to combine external descriptions of Connie (‘She touched his skin’) with sentences that give readers access to her thoughts and sensations (‘She had to remember how soft his skin felt’). The narrator’s language is coloured by Connie’s mental discourse, in sentences that could be attributed to either her or the narrator (‘This was how it was going to be’, which is repeated) and words which point to her state of mind at this moment of the story (‘everything, everything in her journal’). Comparing this scene in The Slap with ‘Jessica Lange’ shows that the shift from first-person to third-person narrative changed Tsiolkas’s fiction, especially its representation of the human body. All of Tsiolkas’s young male stories are about the body in some way, and the shift to third-person narrative in The Slap introduced new possibilities for Tsiolkas to communicate the formative physical experiences that interest him most as a writer.
When comparing any of Tsiolkas’s early young male stories with The Slap, some readers may conclude that the most notable textual feature of these short stories is how little they have been edited in Merciless Gods. This is true of ‘Jessica Lange’ in that the edited version is still remarkably faithful to the original story as it was published in 1997 in the Pub Fiction anthology. Leonie Stevens, the editor of Pub Fiction, writes in the book’s introduction that she wanted to put together a collection of ‘raw’ short stories about Australian pub culture that was not ‘over-edit[ed]’ (v). ‘Jessica Lange’ is still conspicuously ‘raw’ when it is republished in Merciless Gods, making the story a good example of what Tsiolkas means by authors ‘staying honest’ to their early work. In Tsiolkas’s case, ‘staying honest’ in Merciless Gods means giving readers the opportunity to read his early stories more or less as they were originally published, even though this is not how he would write these stories today.
Editing Tsiolkas’s Later Short Stories: Women and ‘The Pornographic Scientist’
Four of Tsiolkas’s more recent short stories are also republished in Merciless Gods: ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’ (2009), ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ (2009), ‘Sticks, Stones’ (2010), and ‘Petals’ (2014). These later stories have been horizontally edited in the same way as Tsiolkas’s early stories, with no new scenes added but many words and phrases rewritten. For example, a character in the original version of ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’ arrives home ‘with two full grocery bags under each arm’ (275), which is changed to ‘both hands laden with supermarket bags’ in Merciless Gods (162). This is exactly how Tsiolkas edits his sentences in ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ and his other early stories. While the later stories in Merciless Gods have been edited less extensively than the early stories in the collection, it is significant that the editorial principles implicitly guiding Tsiolkas’s revisions are largely unchanged: Tsiolkas in 2014 edits a story he wrote in 2010 in the same way as a story from 1995. In Tanselle’s words, ‘the timing of revisions is therefore not in itself the key’ in understanding why Tsiolkas edits his writing or how to account for his editing of specific stories (199). Tsiolkas’s evident willingness to make post-publication changes to his later stories suggests that his revisions are not simply belated attempts to tidy up the youthful infelicities that book reviewers sometimes pointed out in his early fiction. Rather, in Merciless Gods revision is a more general feature of Tsiolkas’s attitude to his previously published writing, especially when it comes to matters of style.
The editing of the later stories in Merciless Gods is also helpful in understanding Tsiolkas’s shift away from the young male stories of his early writing. In particular, the editing of ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ suggests how to interpret the new prominence of female protagonists in Tsiolkas’s fiction that began with The Slap. ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ is retitled ‘Porn 1’ in Merciless Gods, where it appears alongside two newly written stories also on the theme of pornography, ‘Porn 2’ and ‘Porn 3’. The main character in the story is a middle-aged mother who learns that her estranged son performed in gay pornography prior to his death from a drug overdose. The ending of the original story depicts the mother falling asleep after she forces herself to buy and watch a film of her son having sex:
But sleep was no peace. For as soon as her eyes were shut, she was dreaming of things that she wished she had never seen, disturbed by visions of things that should never have been. (91)
The edited ending removes the dream and instead shows the mother lying awake next to her husband:
But sleep would never again be peace. She lay there still, listening to the muted words of his praying. (288)
This qualifies as a major revision for Tsiolkas in that each ending offers a different interpretation of the mother. The original ending depicts the mother falling asleep, a familiar closural device from the chapters of Tsiolkas’s novels. The mother’s dream combines her horrified reaction to watching the porn film (‘things that she wished she had never seen’) with her sadness at how her son’s short life turned out (‘things that should never have been’). In contrast, the edited ending is shorter and less explicit in its interpretation of the mother. Removing the dream makes it more difficult for the reader to draw conclusions about the mother’s psychological state, though her subjectivity marks the language of the third-person narrator in the same way as we saw of Connie in The Slap (‘sleep would never again be peace’). The edited ending also places the mother next to her husband and thus reinstalls her within the heterosexual family structure that has been shaken by her viewing of her son’s porn film. Her husband is not aware of the existence of the film and remains a minor character in the story. The editing of the ending results in a more emotionally devastating outcome for the mother compared to the original story, in that the reader is more aware of her unspoken distress than her oblivious husband.
Shaun Bell praises Merciless Gods for displaying ‘greater diversity’ than Tsiolkas’s novels in its choice of characters and themes, and stories in the collection with female protagonists are a prime example of this phenomenon (195). It is notable that the middle-aged mother is the protagonist of ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ rather than her young son, as seems likely to have been the case at an earlier point in Tsiolkas’s fiction. Moreover, ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ again suggests that the appearance of female protagonists in Tsiolkas’s fiction is related to his shift from first-person to third-person narrative. ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ is told by a third-person narrator, and as in The Slap this creates new possibilities for Tsiolkas to communicate what his protagonists are thinking and feeling. For example, at the beginning of the story the mother is asked by a police officer if she was aware that her deceased son was gay. The mother responds: ‘“Yes.” She knew. She had guessed. Of course, she had always known. Always’ (81). According to the mother, she knew intuitively that her son was gay while he was alive. At the same time, her unspoken equivocations introduce the possibility that she does not know as much about her son as she indicates to the police officer. The use of free indirect discourse in the mother’s stilted response communicates the theme of ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ in miniature: the imperfect knowledge that ageing parents have of their adult children. In addition, and as in The Slap, here women become narratable in Tsiolkas’s fiction due to their proximity to male transgressions. This is also the pattern in the Merciless Gods story ‘Tourists’, when a female character is shocked by her male partner’s casual use of a racial slur while on holiday in New York. This occurs again in ‘Sticks, Stones’ when a mother takes a new view of her teenage son after she overhears him insult a girl with Down syndrome. In these stories, women are mothers, wives, and girlfriends whose relationships are upended by the indecorous men in their lives. This recurring feature of Tsiolkas’s stories with female protagonists is highlighted by one of the revisions to ‘Sticks, Stones’. The original story describes the mother’s teenage son as ‘All sweat and boy’ (16) as she drives him home from a soccer game (16). This is changed to ‘His boyhood sweetness was all gone’ in the edited version, infusing the narrator’s physical description of the teenager with the mother’s subjective sense of their changing relationship (215).
‘Petals’ and the Return of the Inarticulate Male Narrator
There are no female characters in ‘Petals’, and the story’s emphasis on male relationships makes it an outlier among Tsiolkas’s fiction after The Slap. The story’s atavistic quality is likely the reason Peter Craven mistakes it for an early Tsiolkas story in his enthusiastic review of Merciless Gods, even though ‘Petals’ is in fact the most recent short story in the collection. ‘Petals’ is also the least edited story in Merciless Gods, with only a handful of changes to its phrasing and punctuation. The story was published in Overland the same year as the release of Merciless Gods, but here again Tsiolkas’s editing can’t be explained by its timing alone. A better way of understanding the uncharacteristically minimal editing of ‘Petals’ is suggested in the story’s use of language. According to Tsiolkas, he first wrote ‘Petals’ in Greek and then translated the story himself into English. This was done as a way of expressing his imperfect attempts to communicate while on a promotional tour for Barracuda in Greece (Romei). The bilingual textual history of ‘Petals’ is embodied by the story’s narrator, a Greek man incarcerated in an Australian prison. The prisoner’s limited command of English is reflected in his narration:
Fuck bloody God, I want to hear a ring of a Greek church bell! I want to hear a chant from a priest, even though them I can’t bear. I leave Greece and in here I leave one more time my homeland. There is no Greece anywhere left for me, not even in that toilet of shit they call Melbourne. Even there I am exile. (36)
It is clear enough that the prisoner’s imprecise grammar and limited vocabulary are an expression of his physical and linguistic incarceration. But a more interesting question about the prisoner’s language is how ‘Petals’ was edited when it was republished in Merciless Gods. On what basis can deliberately affected language like this be edited? The editorial principles implicitly guiding Tsiolkas’s revisions to his other short stories are moot here, since a tautology or solecism could conceivably be an expression of the prisoner’s limited English proficiency. Tsiolkas realises this, and the edited version of ‘Petals’ retains the prisoner’s grammatical and syntactical imperfections and only lightly modifies his vocabulary. For example, ‘counterfeiters’ (38) becomes ‘forgers’ in the edited version, presumably to better reflect the limited vocabulary of a non-native English speaker (85). In any case, whereas the editing of Tsiolkas’s stories tends to make his language clearer, the republished version of ‘Petals’ is notable in preserving the voice of Tsiolkas’s most inarticulate male narrator ever.
Tsiolkas’s Uncollected Short Stories
Tsiolkas has said that he wants Merciless Gods to be read as a ‘body of work that spans 20 years’, but not all of his stories have been republished in the collection (Romei). Eleven of Tsiolkas’s short stories are not included: ‘Bypassing Benalla’ (1994), ‘Fog’ (1996), ‘Judas Kiss’ (1996), ‘Genesis 3:23’ (2000), ‘The Dacian’ (2010), ‘Salt’ (2010), ‘Rococo’ (2010), ‘The Dawn Service’ (2011), ‘Diplomacy’ (2012), ‘After Dinner’ (2012), and ‘The Stranger’ (2013). Omissions are not unusual in single author story collections, and in Tsiolkas’s case there is not always any obvious thematic or stylistic difference between his uncollected stories and the stories in Merciless Gods. For example, ‘Genesis 3:23’ is a first-person account of a moment of male violence that ends a long-term relationship. The story fits comfortably alongside Tsiolkas’s representation of similar characters and themes in the young male stories in the collection. The same is true of ‘Bypassing Benalla’, which out of all of Tsiolkas’s uncollected stories seems the most likely to be republished in a future collection of his short fiction:
I think of you often. Think of how you took me by the hand and showed me Athens, the sleazy bars where we drank whisky till late at night, the dark taverns in which you taught me to close my eyes, to forget the crowd and dance the blues the way a Greek should. You couldn’t help but laugh at my accent as I butchered the language, but you showed me a big, crazy city and offered it to me. Stay. It’s yours. By birthright, you said, this is your city, this is your language even though you speak it like Crocodile Dundee. And who wouldn’t take Athens on a sultry summer night over the cold, drizzly streets of Melbourne? But I couldn’t stay. (1)
This is the opening of Tsiolkas’s first published work of fiction, which begins as a letter written by the Australian narrator to his Greek cousin. The narrator of ‘Bypassing Benalla’ writes his letter in English because he is not fluent in Greek, as if anticipating Tsiolkas’s struggles with the Greek language when composing ‘Petals’ two decades later. The narrator goes on to explain that he is writing to his cousin because he was the first person in his family he told about his homosexuality. As a young man’s personal account of sexual and cultural difference, ‘Bypassing Benalla’ has obvious similarities with Tsiolkas’s first novel Loaded, published the following year, right down to the narrator’s Walkman, recreational drug use, and the ‘yellowing Euro-communist Party poster’ he sees on the wall (1). The difference between Tsiolkas’s first novel and short story is that ‘Bypassing Benalla’ is more sentimental than Loaded in its idealisation of home and belonging, as expressed in the narrator’s letter writing and polite efforts to communicate in Greek with the migrant café owners he meets later in the story. Bruce Bennett identifies ‘short fiction about the immigrant experience’ as a familiar feature of Australian literature of the 1990s, and Tsiolkas’s first story belongs to a conciliatory strand of stories about migrant children that Loaded will have little time for (293). ‘Bypassing Benalla’ is chiefly of interest as an alternative origin story for the disaffected young men who populate Tsiolkas’s early writing, set in a literary universe where grunge fiction has not yet happened.
‘Bypassing Benalla’ was published in Fruit: A New Anthology of Contemporary Australian Gay Writing, with one reviewer observing that several stories in the anthology are told by an unnamed narrator (Mitchell 28). ‘Bypassing Benalla’ is told by an unnamed young man who is a character in the story, and this is the format of almost all of Tsiolkas’s short stories prior to The Slap. By withholding the narrator’s name from the reader, these stories emphasise his estrangement from his family background and personal relationships. These stories are therefore ‘exemplum stories’ in Mary Louise Pratt’s definition, in that the unnamed young male narrator evokes a broader social type more than a specific individual. This exemplary quality is more pronounced in Tsiolkas’s stories than his novels; the protagonists of Tsiolkas’s novels are always given proper names to indicate that their individualisation is ‘the interest of the book’, in Pratt’s words (103). Starting in the form of a letter provides the narrator of ‘Bypassing Benalla’ with a reason to verbally communicate to his cousin and the reader, with the narrator’s self-reflections continuing as he hitchhikes along the Hume Highway in the next part of the story. Exactly as in Tsiolkas’s other early hitchhiking story ‘Civil War’, here hitchhiking is a young man’s search for an experience in the outside world that will resolve his sense of internal deficit. Tsiolkas’s literary career should partly be understood as his development of new story situations involving young male characters, and in general the first-person hitchhiking story appeals to his early fiction for the same reason as the epistolary genre: both enable an inarticulate young man to tell a story about himself. Tsiolkas’s hitchhiking narrators record their immediate sensory impressions, speculate about life outside of cities, and fantasise about having sex with the men they encounter on the road. ‘Civil War’ was originally published in the Picador New Writing 3 anthology, edited by Drusilla Modjeska and Beth Yahp. In the book’s introduction, Modjeska and Yahp write that many of the submissions they received demonstrated the significant influence of Borges on the Australian short story in the 1990s, but in the end these ‘experimental’ story submissions ‘lost out to tall tales, bent stories and strange fantasies: the revenge of narrative’ (xii). This description also explains the appeal of the first-person hitchhiking story to Tsiolkas, which is a natural storytelling genre for his early fiction.
The other stories that were not included in Merciless Gods often unsettle the view of Tsiolkas promoted by The Slap. A good example of this is ‘The Dacian’, which appeared in the Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow in 2010. The story is set in pre-Christian Rome and is narrated by an old man looking back on his lost childhood, from the time when his homeland was destroyed by invading armies, his parents and family members were violently killed, and he became ‘servant and concubine to a Roman legionnaire named Liscius’ (155). It seems reasonable to assume that ‘The Dacian’ was not republished in Merciless Gods because the story’s time, setting, and genre depart too radically from the other short stories in the collection, all of which take place in the contemporary Australian setting depicted in The Slap or feature an Australian protagonist who has left the country briefly for travel or family reasons. The unclassifiable status of ‘The Dacian’ compared to The Slap and the Merciless Gods stories also likely explains why Tsiolkas is identified as the short story’s translator and not its author. Moreover, readers who turn to ‘The Dacian’ to better understand Damascus (2019) are likely to be disappointed since there is no narrative link between the short story and novel. Nonetheless, the story does offer a more general insight into Tsiolkas’s recent interest in the pre-Christian Roman Empire as a fictional setting. This setting appeals to Tsiolkas partly for its religious eclecticism, with Damascus and ‘The Dacian’ both exploring the nature of personal belief in the polytheistic world before Christianity became institutionalised. The existence of slavery in the ancient world also enables Tsiolkas to explore male subjectivity in an anachronistically brutal historical context, with ‘The Dacian’ reducing male experience to the physical relationship between a legionnaire and his enslaved concubine.
‘Fog’ also stands out among Tsiolkas’s uncollected short stories, as his first work of fiction with a female protagonist and his only work of fiction before The Slap written entirely in the third-person. Published in 1996 in the Smashed: Australian Drinking Stories short fiction anthology, ‘Fog’ portrays Margaret Kildare’s slide into the alcoholic stupor of the story’s title after her son murders seven people in a shooting rampage and then turns his rifle on himself. Like Tsiolkas’s later stories featuring female protagonists, ‘Fog’ begins with a disaffected young man whose inexplicable transgression shocks his respectable middle-class family. Especially like ‘The Pornographic Scientist’, ‘Fog’ represents the young man not in his own words but from the perspective of his devastated mother, who belatedly learns of her son’s secret life after his shocking death.
The story’s focus on young male violence also makes ‘Fog’ a relevant companion story to The Jesus Man, and the short story is vulnerable to the stylistic criticisms that book reviewers made of Tsiolkas’s second novel. For example, the ‘insipid and laconic’ writing style that Cameron Woodhead objected to in The Jesus Man is on display when Margaret injures her hand and is comforted by her husband:
Margaret stared at her bleeding fingers. Her face collapsed and she turned old. John put out a hand to steady her. He bandaged her hand, stroked her hair, and he noticed that her lips were cracked and black from nicotine. He poured her a drink. She gulped at it gratefully. (137)
The bluntness of this passage may be one reason Tsiolkas favoured first-person narration for so many years of his writing. Here Tsiolkas has not yet figured out how to effectively convey a protagonist’s psychological state using third-person narration as he later will in ‘The Pornographic Scientist’ and The Slap. This is also why the narrator of ‘Fog’ sometimes resorts to telling the reader about Margaret instead of allowing her character traits to be expressed through her actions: ‘Stripped of the formidable reserve which was one of her defining traits, she collapsed with her face in her hands’ (130–31).
By far the most unusual of Tsiolkas’s uncollected stories is ‘Judas Kiss’, published in 1996 in a special issue of Meanjin dedicated to the theme of ‘Australia Queer’. In the introduction, the editors of the special issue, Chris Berry and Annamarie Jagose, explain their purpose as presenting a ‘wide-ranging and inclusive sampling’ of fiction and non-fiction where the previously negative term ‘queer’ is reclaimed in an Australian context (10). Berry and Jagose write that some contributors define queer as an ‘umbrella term for a coalitional group of anti-normative sexual self-identifications’, while for others queerness designates a generational divide between ‘an establishment lesbian and gay constituency’ and ‘a more radical activist population’ (6). Tsiolkas’s short story can’t be accommodated into even this wide range of definitions. ‘Judas Kiss’ is set in a shadowy room where a young man has violent sex with other men, including his father, God, Stalin, Rupert Murdoch, and Jack Kerouac. Queerness in this story is a form of uncontrollable same-sex attachment, a transgressive desire that subsumes everything in the young narrator’s minimal life. The sexual brutality of ‘Judas Kiss’ makes it almost Tsiolkas’s self-parody of the first-person young male story of his early fiction, given the story’s removal of the narrator from any recognisable social world and its subordination of narrative to the physical urges of the male body.
The exclusion of ‘Judas Kiss’ from Merciless Gods fits what Andrew McCann says about the generally middlebrow orientation of Tsiolkas’s writing from The Slap onwards, which ‘takes us to a recognisable world of norms, not exceptions’ compared to an earlier novel like Dead Europe (89). For this reason, it is notable that one scene from ‘Judas Kiss’ resurfaces in the newly written Merciless Gods story ‘Genetic Material’. This is the childhood beach scene, where the narrator vividly recalls the moment he became sexually aroused by the body of his attractive uncle. Comparing ‘Genetic Material’ with ‘Judas Kiss’ is instructive because it raises a broader question about Tsiolkas’s development as a writer: what has to change in a deliberately rebarbative early Tsiolkas story for it to become compatible with the normalised middlebrow world of Merciless Gods? In the context of the edited stories in Merciless Gods, ‘Genetic Material’ is unusual because it does not tinker with the style or phrasing of the earlier short story. Instead, ‘Genetic Material’ preserves a single scene from ‘Judas Kiss’ as part of a new story involving a middle-aged man caring for his father, who suffers from dementia. The virile uncle of ‘Judas Kiss’ becomes the ageing father of ‘Genetic Material’, introducing an elegiac aspect into the representation of the male body that is absent from the earlier story. In the final scene of ‘Genetic Material’ the father is masturbated by his son, who he no longer recognises because of his dementia. The new family context of ‘Genetic Material’ reframes this potentially transgressive sexual act into a gesture of care, a son’s acknowledgement of his father’s deteriorating bodily life. Even though the son licks his hand afterwards, an action which seems calculated to prevent the story from becoming sentimental, the revision of ‘Judas Kiss’ into ‘Genetic Material’ brings together several of the ways the Merciless Gods stories ‘displace or redescribe the dissident elements that dominated [Tsiolkas’s] earlier work’, as McCann writes (120). Like all stories in the collection other than ‘Petals’ and the title story, ‘Genetic Material’ does away with the extreme violence that was once a familiar and even expected feature of Tsiolkas’s writing, and contextualises any lingering sexual provocations within a recognisable social and moral world. ‘Genetic Material’ also shows the increasing presence of middle-aged characters in Tsiolkas’s writing as opposed to characters who are young, which has led to a new thematic focus on mortality. Finally, ‘Genetic Material’ normalises queerness in a way ‘Judas Kiss’ resolutely does not. The son in ‘Genetic Material’ is in a long-term partnership with another man, and their relationship is one instance of the middle-aged and middle-class same-sex couple that appears in the Merciless Gods title story and ‘The T-Shirt with a Fist on it’, and in Tsiolkas’s uncollected stories ‘After Dinner’ and ‘Laura Nyro at the Wedding’, the latter published in 2019 in an anthology for young adult readers. In these stories, Tsiolkas’s homosexual characters are not automatically assigned outsider status as they arguably were in his earlier work. Coming from the author of ‘Judas Kiss’, this marks a significant change.
Tsiolkas and Australian Short Story Publishing
Tsiolkas has been writing short stories since 1994, and this essay has argued that knowing about his stories clarifies what is distinctive and characteristic about his fiction from its earliest years to the present day. Many of the qualities that readers have been attracted to in Tsiolkas’s novels have a parallel life in his stories, even as his stories have the ability to complicate the view of Tsiolkas as a writer of contemporary Australian suburbia popularised by The Slap. More broadly, Gail Jones says that the short story is often regarded as an ‘intrinsically lesser’ literary genre compared to the novel, though in Tsiolkas’s case it is his less widely read stories that offer some of the clearest insights into his writing (28). Tsiolkas’s short stories are therefore valuable because they foreground the central questions involved in reading his work: what kind of writer he is, which qualities of his writing should be the focus of critical activity, and the extent to which The Slap is a useful reference point for Tsiolkas’s almost three-decade body of work in the book reviews and academic studies that have appeared in recent years.
This essay has examined these questions primarily in relation to Tsiolkas’s editing practices, writing style, and shift away from the young male narrators of his early fiction, but another way to approach Tsiolkas’s stories is to look more closely at where they were published. It is notable that Tsiolkas’s stories have been published in a variety of contexts, among them the multi-author theme anthology, literary magazines such as Meanjin and Overland, and the single author collection with Merciless Gods. Accordingly, Tsiolkas’s stories offer broader insights into some of the structural dynamics of Australian short story publishing over the past three decades. One claim about Tsiolkas’s short stories in the context of recent publishing history is made by Kath McLean, Louise Poland, and Jacinta van den Berg in ‘A Case for Literature: The Effectiveness of Subsidies to Australian Publishers 1995–2005’, a research report presented to the Literature Board of the Australia Council. This report offers an overview of the publishing industry’s commercial dynamics in the years when Tsiolkas begins writing, identifying Tsiolkas as one of the success stories of the Australia Council’s subsidies program in this period. The report gives most of the credit to Loaded, which received a Literature Board first novel subsidy in 1995, but also discusses the subsidy that was given to Blur: Stories by Young Australian Writers, the 1996 theme anthology where Tsiolkas’s young male story ‘Saturn’s Return’ first appeared. Describing Tsiolkas and the other writers who contributed short stories to Blur, the report states that ‘The anthology offered these young writers an early career opportunity for publication and exposure’ (26). This modest claim is worth underlining for two reasons. Firstly, it points to the Australia Council’s subsidies program as a hitherto unacknowledged economic context of Tsiolkas’s early career. Secondly, and specifically in relation to the short story, the report’s observations about Blur remind us that the theme anthology was an important publication context for Tsiolkas’s early fiction. Six of Tsiolkas’s first eight short stories were published in theme anthologies, though in general the theme anthology has not attracted the same amount of critical attention as other types of Australian short story publishing. We know a great deal about single author story collections owing to studies by Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman, Elizabeth Webby and Emmett Stinson, and Stephen Holden has examined the selection practices of national short story anthologies; but we have fewer sustained accounts of the theme anthology and its role in Australian literary history (Stephen Torre’s discussion is one example, 419–23).
Tsiolkas begins writing at a time when theme anthologies featuring new or republished short fiction had ‘become a significant part of [Australian] literary culture’, according to Margaret Simons’s review of Smashed: Australian Drinking Stories, the 1996 anthology which included Tsiolkas’s ‘Fog’. Simons quotes Jane Palfreyman, Tsiolkas’s longtime editor at Random House, as saying that 1993’s Picador Book of the Beach, edited by Robert Drewe, ‘was the spur for the present anthology craze’. Simons characterises Random House in the 1990s as ‘something of an anthology factory’ for short story publishing, speculating that theme anthologies were often financially attractive to large publishers at the time because they were relatively inexpensive to commission and could be reprinted (10). Simons’s comments are part of a book review and not an academic study, but what she says here is a starting point for thinking about Tsiolkas’s relationship to the theme anthologies of the 1990s where the majority of his early short stories appeared. For example, knowing that most of these theme anthologies were published by large Australian publishers complicates any received wisdom that Tsiolkas’s career has been a straightforward progression from the margins to the mainstream. Tsiolkas has basically always been a mainstream writer, if we look at where his short stories and novels have been published.1 Moreover, the themes of these 1990s anthologies tie Tsiolkas’s short stories to a specific and highly eclectic set of occasional contexts that are not immediately visible in Merciless Gods outside of the publication information on the book’s inside cover. Tsiolkas’s stories appeared in theme anthologies showcasing gay writing (Fruit), stories about alcohol (both Pub Fiction and Smashed), stories by young writers (Blur), and the theme of personal bests (Below the Waterline). None of these anthologies were acknowledged in the generally positive reviews that Merciless Gods received, where Tsiolkas was more likely to be praised as a ‘master of fictional form’ than a young writer working in the context of a specific theme (Craven). The eclecticism of these early theme anthologies also differentiates them from the comparatively high-profile venues where Tsiolkas’s short stories start to appear after The Slap, where Tsiolkas is billed a national literary celebrity. The celebrity publishing contexts of Tsiolkas’s later short stories include the Australia Council’s 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010, where ‘Sticks, Stones’ is described as having been written by one of ‘Australia’s best writers’ (Yates 5), and the nationally circulated Good Weekend supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald, which published Tsiolkas’s uncollected stories ‘The Dawn Service’ (2011) and ‘Diplomacy’ (2012).
A related question about Tsiolkas’s publishing contexts concerns how his short stories eventually migrated to Merciless Gods. Simons’s review of Smashed surmises that the 1990s boom in theme anthologies coincided with a downturn in single author story collections, citing the ‘conventional wisdom’ of Australian publishers that ‘collections of short stories by a single author don’t sell’ (10). Garry Disher points to the same phenomenon in his editor’s introduction to 1999’s Below the Waterline, where Tsiolkas’s ‘Hung Phat!’ appeared: ‘Publishers are more likely to publish a theme anthology than a collection of short stories by an individual’ (2). In After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007, Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman agree that ‘the single authored short story collection has become a much rarer publishing option’ for contemporary Australian fiction writers, before adding that ‘The exceptions are novelists with high public profiles and (one assumes) guaranteed sales’ (97). This is a simple but entirely reasonable explanation for why Merciless Gods was published, and Tsiolkas certainly fits the description of a writer with a visible public profile who published his first single author story collection after the success of his novels. It is difficult to offer any more substantive evidence for this claim, but without the literary success and television adaptations of The Slap and his next novel Barracuda it seems unlikely that Tsiolkas’s short stories would otherwise have been repackaged into a single author collection.
This means that the publication of Tsiolkas’s Merciless Gods is only marginally related to the new developments in short story publishing analysed by Emmett Stinson. Stinson’s pair of articles revise some of Gelder and Salzman’s arguments about the short story, partly on the grounds that an increase in ‘small and mid-sized independent publishers’ has fostered a more diverse publishing environment compared to when After the Celebration appeared in 2009. The result is that new and relatively unknown writers are now much more likely to appear in single author story collections, a situation Stinson describes as a belated ‘renaissance of short fiction publishing’ in Australia (‘In the Same Boat’). But this turn of events does not readily apply to Tsiolkas, given that his literary reputation was secured before the short story ‘renaissance’ began and Merciless Gods was published by a large publisher (Allen & Unwin). In fact, Stinson’s bibliometric data reveals that Merciless Gods is a rarity in the new landscape of Australian short story publishing, being one of only four single author collections published by a large publishing house in 2014 out of a total of 17 (‘Short Story’ 58–60).2 Considered by itself, the publication of Merciless Gods obviously does not disprove Stinson’s argument, but it does suggest that the ‘renaissance’ model of short story publishing has not entirely supplanted the previous model of single author story collections being published by high profile novelists. Stinson confirms this when he says that ‘large publishers continue to invest strategically in a few featured works or authors imbued with symbolic capital while generally applying a strategy of signing books that combine “quality” with the prospect of high sales’ (‘Short Story’ 61).
Tsiolkas is evidently one of these few ‘featured authors’, though Merciless Gods is not an obvious fit alongside Stinson’s examples of recent Australian single author collections whose reception has been shaped by their author’s overseas successes. Tsiolkas’s most high-profile reviews have been in Australia and the United Kingdom, circumscribing his symbolic capital within a national and Commonwealth context rather than the North American contexts that Stinson focuses on. Even with a favourable review of The Slap in the Washington Post and the novel’s television adaptation by NBC, these events have had a different effect on Tsiolkas’s local reception compared to Stinson’s example of Cate Kennedy’s ‘Black Ice’, whose 2006 publication in the New Yorker became a universal reference point among Australian reviewers of Dark Roots (2006), her subsequent single author collection (‘In the Same Boat’).
Stinson goes on to identify Kennedy’s Dark Roots and Nam Le’s The Boat (2008) as two of the most prominent Australian examples of the aesthetically conservative ‘international style’ of contemporary short story writing, ‘an over-refined style of writing that, for better or worse, has traditionally been associated with U.S. Creative Writing programs’ (‘In the Same Boat’). One influential model for this formulation is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, with McGurl’s book suggesting that historically many U.S. Creative Writing programs have promoted a minimalist approach to textual editing which favours ‘the value of craft as represented by the practice of multiple revision’ (244). Tsiolkas’s editing of Merciless Gods deviates from this model, with his revisions preserving much of his inarticulacy and verbal roughness. Tsiolkas also receives enough criticisms of his ‘awkward prose and redundancies’ to suggest that his writing style is uncongenial to the preference for ‘craft’ in a certain type of book review (Rutherford). This is despite the fact that Tsiolkas came of age at a time when Creative Writing programs expanded at Australian universities, as was reflected in reviews of the 1996 Blur story anthology. Cath Kenneally notes that Blur appeared ‘at the zenith of the Creative Writing age’, with Nigel Krauth sardonically counting up the number of young contributors who had studied creative writing in either Sydney or Melbourne (29). Victor Barker’s review of Blur offered an even more negative assessment, painting an exaggerated picture of where the preponderance of creative writing instruction, theme anthologies, publishing subsidies and stories with sexual subject matter in the 1990s could lead: ‘Australia’s once idiosyncratic literature seems to be sinking under the weight of creative clones with easy access to spell checks, government grants and massage parlours’ (8). This dire prediction has probably not come to pass, but this and other reviews of Blur show that Stinson’s critique of the homogenising effects of creative writing instruction has an older provenance in Australia than McGurl’s study. In any case, Tsiolkas is by authorial inclination and aesthetics simply not a writer of McGurl’s professionalised ‘program era’ or Stinson’s etiolated ‘international style’.
All of this makes Tsiolkas seem more original than he actually is. Tsiolkas’s stories reflect some of the structural conditions of recent literary and publishing history, but it is clear that these are not the only possibilities available for short story writers in Australia today. Alongside these contexts of production, and the revision processes this essay has investigated, is a methodology for understanding the short story that is responsive to the cultures of criticism and celebrity in which Tsiolkas and his work circulate. This model of the short story allows for an original appreciation of the textual and institutional forces that give shape to the short story in Australia today.
As Tsiolkas describes it, he ‘initially gave Loaded to a gay and lesbian press to publish. They sent me a letter saying that they liked the writing but they couldn’t publish it because they thought it was racist and homophobic’ (Vasilakakos 25). See also pp. 48–49 and 58. Tsiolkas credits Sasha Soldatow with sending the manuscript to Jane Palfreyman, then at Random House (Zuckerman). Random House published Loaded, The Jesus Man, and Dead Europe. For more on Tsiolkas and Palfreyman, see McLean, Poland and van den Berg (23, 44–45). Allen & Unwin published The Slap and Tsiolkas’s subsequent novels, with Tsiolkas moving to Allen & Unwin after Palfreyman joined the publisher in 2006 (Zuckerman). As for Tsiolkas’s short stories, the theme anthologies where his stories were published came out with Random House, Allen & Unwin, Pan Macmillan and Harper Collins, all large mainstream publishers. One exception among Tsiolkas’s 1990s stories is ‘Bypassing Benalla’, which was published in Fruit: A New Anthology of Contemporary Australian Gay Writing by Sydney’s Black Wattle Press. For a note on Tsiolkas’s early writing and gay publishing in Australia at the time, see Altman.↩
According to the AustLit database, the three other single author collections published in 2014 by large publishers were Maxine Beneba Clark’s Foreign Soil (Hachette), Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (Penguin) and Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm (Allen & Unwin).↩