Men Who Read Romance

“It’s a good book. Have a go at it. Try it,” says Len Klumpp, his northern New South Welsh accent so broad I could be talking to Jeff Jarrett in Wolf Creek. Len is a former jackaroo who lives in Tamworth with his wife and kids—and he happens to read romance novels. “Bloody heaps of ’em,” as Len puts it, without a hint of reticence.

Thanks to the age of the internet, Len is no longer restricted by geography. He has found his community: “I’ll read a book and I’ll post it on Facebook and say how much I enjoyed reading it. Everybody knows that I read ’em. I don’t hide behind in the closet.”

Yet, even though Len enjoys mostly positive reactions when he talks about his love of novels sporting covers with “hunky males on ’em”, he recognises that many still look down their noses at romance. A special disdain is reserved for male readers of a genre that continues to be thought of as “girlie”.

“I got a message on Facebook, and it was just some random person … I sort of think it might have been someone who knew me and just made a false profile. And they abused me. They said, ‘Why don’t you start reading decent books instead of all these girlie bloody books you read. Grow-some-knackers,’ sort of thing, ‘and become a real man.’ ”

Len fired off a response: “The books I read are by talented authors like Rachel Johns, Fiona Palmer, Cathryn Hein, Alissa Callen and many more. Yes they may be called Rural Romance but that doesn’t make them soppy love stories. The characters are strong Australian women. They are full of love, hope, tragedy and good Aussie people who face everyday struggles with the land and themselves. They make me laugh, they make me cry and they make me feel.”

And if that doesn’t mesh with your idea of what a man is—Len could not care less.

“Even though things are changing, there’s still the perception that a man’s gotta be a man and macho … Tell you the truth, mate, some of those books really make me cry. You get right into the characters.”

Len is so persuasive in his advocacy of romance novels that he’s managed to convince other male friends to dip their toe. “So they started reading … and now they’re enjoying them.”

Yet no matter how much those other male friends enjoy romance books, they remain unlike Len in one important way. They are unwilling to admit to others that they read—and like—romance novels.

The average man who reads romance is like the Siberian tiger: unless he chooses to make himself known (usually because he’s about to attack) he is almost never spotted in his natural habitat. We know he exists, we sometimes even know that he is right there in front of us hiding behind a spruce/kindle, but he remains invisible.

Anecdotally, there is little doubt that there are many male readers of romance. But how many? Robust statistics are scarce. The most reliable figure comes from a Nielsen survey commissioned by the Romance Writers of America that found males make up 16% of romance readers.

While that does not sound like much, it needs to be remembered that there are more readers of romance novels than any other book genre in the world. Just over 1 in 5 adult novels and 1 in 4 ebook novels sold feature a chisel-jawed stud or flaxen-locked beauty on the cover. Romance is a billion-dollar business, easily the most popular book genre across the globe, and millions of men are in on it.

In many situations, economic clout equals power, and power eventually leads to acceptance. But that does not seem to be true for romance. A survey almost exclusively of female romance readers discovered that 88% felt that romance readers were looked down upon, while 51% had personally felt ashamed of reading romance. If they are the numbers for women, how much worse is the sense of shame—an emotion cultivated and foisted upon a person by outside forces—experienced by male readers?

It is a question contemplated by Dr Lisa Fletcher of the University of Tasmania. Fletcher is a rare academic: she has made popular fiction and the romance genre her scholarly focus. While her ivory tower peers are deconstructing Camus and Joyce, Fletcher is analysing Mills & Boon and Harlequin novels. With Australian colleagues, she has embarked a project with the backing of the Australian Research Council almost unheard of in literary scholarship: taking romance and romance readers seriously.

Fletcher identifies two types of prejudice concerning romance fiction. The first is a general boorish and snobbish “high literature” condescension: “You will always encounter the assumption—and it’s often a casual assumption—that popular romance fiction is trash. That it is equivalent to eating a box of chocolates rather than a gourmet meal.”

The second is a more specific set of stereotypes about gender: “women are interested in emotion and family and nurturing”, while men should be interested in “action, in strong male heroes, in very fast-paced spectacle-based narrative”.

These assumptions and stereotypes are so ingrained in culture, so casually and innocently perpetuated, that Fletcher thinks “we would be making a mistake to try to work out who we point the finger at; a whole range of institutions participate in this, including educational institutions, high schools and universities.”

Many people continue to hold fast to notions about what is acceptable behaviour from men as opposed to women, to the extent that men who may themselves be liberated of such baggage continue to be affected by family, friends and even strangers who consider some things to be “unmanly”.

Things like reading romance novels.


Donn Saylor was raised in a small town in the United States, the sort of place from which Judy Garland took flight in The Wizard of Oz and Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.

“One thousand people. Super conservative,” says Donn. “A white-bred Midwestern community.”

From an early age, Donn knew he was different—and so did his peers, who bullied him mercilessly throughout his school years. He just didn’t match up to the “manly” expectations of kids who knew no better. His escape was reading.

One day when he was 12, Donn was at the community library, a place of refuge and comfort where most other boys dared not tread. The library’s entire canon consisted of “about 50 romance novels and maybe a couple of mysteries.” Curiosity got the better of Donn’s ingrained wariness; he took home his first romance novel.

“I knew I was gay—that was never a huge identity crisis for me, even though I didn’t have that sort of name to put to it … So what drew me to romance novels were the covers, because they were just so unabashedly sexual, and they were focused on the male character and not the female character. The female character was always wearing clothes. I mean, they may be ripped or off the shoulder, but the male was always bare-chested and tight pants, tight breeches, or a loin cloth or something. There was something so revealing and not pornographic, but sexually exciting about that.”

The male models may have caught Donn’s interest, but it was the comfort of the romance formula and the assurance of a happy ending that kept him coming back for more.

“I remember feeling really charmed—enchanted by it—because it was more than I expected. It was not just a trashy story. That there actually was kind of this love story, but also adventure … this journey.”

While Donn’s father, a blue-collar military man, read pulp western novels by authors like Louis L’Amour that were filled with swashbuckling heroes and weak-kneed women, his son was nose-deep in bodice rippers. Perhaps surprisingly for a man of his generation and background, Donn says that his father “really didn’t give a shit. He was just happy I was reading and I was interested in learning and books. Any kind of embarrassment I felt was not brought on by anybody in my family. It was just my embarrassment.”

But that embarrassment—a reflection of norms and values that children sponge up and internalise from a young age—was real enough.

“I do remember once, I was reading this book … There was nothing really graphic about the cover. There were no people, no images on it, but the cover was lavender and hot pink, festooned with all these lilies, and it was a very, very feminine-looking book. And I remember my dad asking me what I was reading, and I showed him the book, and he was just like, ‘Oh, is that good?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s really good.’ And that was just the end of the conversation, but I remember being so embarrassed because the book kind of looked like a feminine hygiene product.”

The irony of Donn’s sense of embarrassment only became apparent to him later in life—the fact that he and his father were the opposite sides of a gendered literary divide (supreme manliness vs. supreme womanliness) which, but for a cover, told much the same story.

“There’s some Old West historical romances I’ve read that, if it did have a guy—a fully clothed guy, and a horse with a gun drawn on the cover and a male author, but the story is exactly the same—it would be a completely different readership.”

Had he ripped the cover off that Jude Deveraux novel that looked like a feminine hygiene product, his dad may well have lapped it up—much as Len Klumpp’s friends enjoyed the “girlie” books he recommended.

Indeed, there’s every reason to think this isn’t just wishful thinking, but rather an image of what reading would look like if men weren’t so hung up on their “manly” reputation.

“One librarian did say to me once, ‘You’re one of only two guys in town who read these books,’” recalls Donn. “And she told me who the other guy was, and what’s interesting is he was an older guy, probably in his seventies then, and he was a friend of my dad’s. And he was very much just a retired, blue-collar guy, grandfather, and he was the only other guy in town that read these books. And I knew he was a friend of my dad. So I was like, ‘Ok, I’m in good company. Never would have expected that.’ ”

In the end, neither Donn nor Len expect that males will flock to romance novels anytime soon. But Len does have one piece of advice.

“Just say I’d never read any, and I’m just a normal male’s walked in [to a bookstore], you’d probably brush past ’em. I’d say a big percentage of males would say, ‘I’m not reading that, that’s girlie.’ They are misleading. You know the saying: don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Australians Love Refugees, Hate ‘Boat People’?

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

When it comes to ‘boat people’, majority Australian opinion is in check with government policy and government policy is in check with majority public opinion which holds that boats should be turned back, and anyone who gets through should be sent to mandatory indefinite offshore detention.

Verification of this claim is readily at hand. Simply poke your head out of your terrace house window and ask a passer-by, or stop the next car you see on the main drag of your town, or ask the bloke next door mowing the lawn. People are willing—eager, even—to express their opinions on ‘boat people’.

More rigorous data tells the same story. A Scanlon Foundation survey found that 41% of people surveyed wanted to either turn back the boats or keep the asylum seekers in permanent detention pending removal. Another 30% would allow only for temporary residence in Australia (the instability caused by temporary visas has been shown to cause serious mental health illnesses). Just 24% would allow for permanent residence.

Similarly, a Lowy Institute poll on asylum seekers found that 71% of people thought the Australian government should turn back boats when it is safe to do so, and, failing that, 59% wanted offshore processing. Most polls are broadly consistent with these findings.

However, to confuse the situation, a poll by Essential Research found that 49% of people think boat people should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be refugees—a minority of respondents, but still a significant level of support given the ongoing climate of antipathy.

This raises an important question: what percentage of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia are subsequently found to be refugees? Historically, the figure has varied year-to-year, but the range tends to stick within 70–95%. That is, the overwhelming majority of all ‘boat people’ are refugees.

Add these facts and poll findings together and a contradiction seemingly appears: most Australians support turning refugees away—the unavoidable consequence of turning boats back when most the ‘boat people’ are refugees—but a portion of those very same Australians think the ‘boat people’ (the ones they want turned back) should be allowed to stay in Australia. Welcome them on one hand, send them packing on the other.

Here’s how the discrepancy makes sense. The Essential Research survey found that 43% of people think most ‘boat people’ are not genuine refugees, and a further 25% don’t know one way or the other. In total, 68% of people are in the dark about the single-most important fact about the asylum seekers who come by boat—that most of them are refugees.

Consider this correlation: 61% of people think that the government’s approach to ‘boat people’ is either just right or too soft, and 68% of people are ill-informed about who ‘boat people’ are. This is not a coincidence.

What is clear is that Australians do not like ‘boat people’. But that finding is very specific and comes with a caveat: it turns out they have little issue with refugees generally. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Australians support the Australian refugee resettlement program that takes refugees who are assessed and placed by the UNHCR.

The Scanlon Foundation found that between 2010 and 2012 support for the program increased from 67% to 75%. To be clear, resettlement refugees come by plane, not boat.

What gives? Well, our politicians have known for years. It’s the boats, stupid.

Australians don’t fear refugees. They fear ‘boat people’. And if you want to know why—read this.

Captain Cook Graffiti Paints a Confused Picture

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Ahead of Australia Day, the statue of Captain Cook in St Kilda, Melbourne, has been smeared with pink paint (never mind that the paint job is actually quite striking, and Cook makes a fine, if unexpected, dandy). The graffitiing of Cook memorials is part of a protest that has been going on for years.

Take the Cook statue in Hyde Park, Sydney. Paint bombs were thrown at it on Australia Day morning in 2013. More recently, on 26 August 2017, the same statute was graffitied with the words, “CHANGE THE DATE” and “NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE”.

There is another well-known monument and memorial to Cook in Melbourne. Though Cook never lived in Australia (British settlement was not for nine years after his death in Hawaii), in 1934 his parents’ cottage was dismantled in North Yorkshire, loaded into barrels and shipped across the seas, where it was reassembled at Fitzroy Gardens.

In 2014, that cottage was vandalised three days before Australia Day. Fluorescent orange, green and yellow paint bombs coloured the brickwork and tiles. Black paint spelled out: “26th Jan Australia’s SHAME!!!” A penis or other human appendage may also have been depicted, though due to poor artistry that remains conjectural.

The year before, two days after Australia Day, the cottage was paint-bombed. Then on 4 February a message was painted on the wall: “Cappy Cook was a crook killer liar theif [and while I was going to put in brackets [sic] to suggest a misspelling, further research suggests the author of the graffiti was really quite clever, using the alternate 18th century spelling of thief from Cook’s time: theif)”.

These actions have proved wildly unpopular in the Australian mainstream, with denunciations across both popular and social media. Yet despite the continuing public interest in Cook, for many years the legend and status of Cook have been on the radar of revisionist cultural-theory academics.

This is part of a backlash against the Great Man History of the 20th century in which predominantly white male figures were credited with almost single-handedly advancing history.

For an unrelenting two hundred years, Cook was the poster boy of explorers.  In Australia, his image and legend were used to promote the greatness of the country. “Australia’s history began, when Captain Cook anchored in Botany Bay in 1770,” stated one poster from the 1950s.

A few years later, Australia’s most famous historian, Manning Clark, said something similar in the opening line of his monumental History of Australia: “Civilization did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century.” He would later regret this.

In the 80s and 90s, the tide began to turn against Great Man History, which meant, given his symbolic value, it also turned against Cook. His name became attached to an altogether different aspect of our history—the dispossession, oppression and slaughter of Indigenous Australians. Australia’s Columbus suddenly became all too Columbus-like.

Cook is now claimed by both camps. By the postmodern theorists who denounce the colonial age of which he was such an integral part, and by popular writers who continue to write laudatory books, articles and television shows announcing his greatness.

Today, the irony of targeting Cook monuments to denounce Australia Day and the colonial history of Australia is that Cook neither discovered nor settled the land. It is a common error.

A survey I conducted at a university among first-year Australian history students found that 43% of those students believed the British were the first Europeans to discover Australia, and 46% thought first discovery occurred in 1770 or later. In fact, it was the Dutch who did the most to discover Australia to Europe, starting in 1606.

The other irony is that Cook truly was a great man, certainly so far as his duties as a naval captain were concerned. He inspired his men, kept them alive in an era where half or more of one’s crew could be expected to perish on long voyages, and he entered and explored Antarctic waters besieged by icebergs in a big wooden ship—arguably the greatest feat of exploration in history.

Cappy Cook was not a crook, nor liar nor thief nor killer. He was an instrument of his time—and now a symbol with little relationship to his uses by patriots and anarchists alike.

Being Mocked for Mispronunciation

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

An aphorism did the rounds recently, and it struck a chord:

“Never make fun of somebody if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.”

That’s been me all my life: mispronouncing words discovered exclusively through books. Sometimes I have discovered this through a gentle correction given quietly after the fact, or as part of a shared laugh over the gaffe, but not always.

The most unkind instance was when I was in law school. It was a constitutional law tutorial, compulsory and deadly boring. The word was “quorum”, which means the minimum number of members that must be present to start a valid meeting. It is pronounced kw-or-mm. I pronounced it kw-ere-mm, for I suppose I had never heard it spoken, having skipped the relevant (but mind-numbingly boring) lectures.

Many of my classmates snickered. A tall, blonde, athletic boy from a grammar school, who to this day makes me think of the Hitler youth, snickered the loudest. Being that I had to repeat the word many times in my little presentation, it got to the point that I stopped and asked the group: “What is so funny?”

The young Hitlerite decided to act as group spokesman. He took great pleasure in telling me that I was mispronouncing the word, and finished by asking if I had any sort of education whatsoever.

I glared at him, my fists balled, and I contemplated—quite seriously—leaping across the desk and punching him in the face, as would be voted appropriate by a quorum of Nannupians or public school ruffians of my ilk. But I knew it would cause more problems for me than him. Indeed, I would have been ejected from the law degree I so loathed. So the tutor interjected, and that was that.

That blonde boy was later accused of rape. Not a joke.

What’s the point? Well, it’s obvious. You can quietly and humbly correct someone’s pronunciation, and that is a kindness. You can together laugh at it all. But if you mock them to make them feel small and yourself big—then you are a coward and a tyrant. I’m pretty sure that that’s what that aphorism was trying to say.

The Great Spanish Coffee Swindle

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Spaniards drink a lot of coffee—and I love their café cultura, it is central to life—but, Christ, is their coffee rough! Not every taza in every cafetería in every ciudad, but the overwhelming majority of coffee experiences in Spain are trials to be endured, the flavour bitter and burnt and retaining little that is recognisably coffee. And I just found out why: a diablo by the name of torrefacto.

Any half decent coffee has this in common: it is 100% coffee. Torrefacto coffee is only 80% coffee, or less. It’s like the way Australian chocolate is not all chocolate; I mean, there has to be some allowance for a percentage of cockroach, right?

Torrefacto refers to the process whereby sugar is added during the coffee bean roasting process. This is a Spanish practice going back about 80 years, when sugar began to be added to the roast of the beans for one very special reason: it gave the final product a long shelf life (by embalming the beans in a caramel sarcophagus) and ensured no wastage. An added bonus was that the cheaper sugar bulked out the coffee, like the way the British pump their meat full of water.

The problem is that torrefacto coffee tastes like … how would the Spanish put it … mierda, caca, popó? Which is to say, like someone has very carefully coated some green coffee beans with liquid faeces and then roasted it to a crisp, ground it, prepared it with an espresso machine and served it with a snappy vale. Oh, and apart from the fact that it tastes like shit, it may also be cancerous (the lesser of concerns here).

So, in short:

  • Coffee in Spain normally means torrefacto coffee –> means bitter shit-flavoured coffee.
  • When it isn’t torrefacto coffee, the beans in Spain are still burned to a dark char –> means bitter shit-flavoured coffee.

Silly Spain.

Loco Spain!

Ahh, Spain …

The Professional Sceptic

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

*A version of this article first appeared on Stumbling Through the Past.

The historian is two things above all else: a sceptic and an explainer.

Whatever the subject, the ultimate goal is explaining what happened, how it happened and why it happened. But reaching that goal requires enormous scepticism: suspiciously examining the sources, which will deceive in every imaginable way, and suspiciously examining the explanations other historians have offered.

This latter requirement of the historian—professional scepticism of fellow historians—is something seldom emphasised to the layperson or student. If it is in a book, especially one written by a credentialed scholar, then it is history, it happened. It can be added to, maybe interpreted through another lens, but the core stuff—when, what, where, how and why—is established. It doesn’t need to be raked over.

That is the misconception, sometimes willingly gilded by our profession. Now here is the unadorned truth of the matter: historians make a surprising number of errors, mostly small, occasionally monumental. The trick is not to be surprised, but to expect error, seek error and to celebrate it when found, even when it is your own work that has been set ablaze.

The warmth of that fire—of his and her and my hard work turning to ash—means understanding has been advanced. After all, that is the goal, for history is not like mathematics with its proofs, chiselled out on stone tablets. It is like science, with its method centred on falsifiability and incremental gains in knowledge.

It goes something like this: the historian makes a claim they believe is true or might be true and corroborates the claim with all the evidence and argument they can muster. Then they wait for someone to further corroborate their work, or to point to a piece of evidence or argument that brings the whole edifice tumbling down. A new theory/argument/interpretation is advanced; the cycle repeats.

Hence, at the core of all this is one thing: sources—original sources.

My own experience must have been echoed by countless others. When I was a new PhD candidate and very naive about what historians did and how the practice of history worked, I wanted to tell the story of the imagined Australian Inland Sea—the sea that explorers like Charles Sturt figured existed in the Australian interior.

I realised that, first, I needed even earlier background information about what Europeans expected from southern hemispheric lands they might encounter. Hence, I read widely on the history of Terra Australis Incognita, the mythical continent imagined for the southern hemisphere. An obvious question came to the fore: how had the idea of Antipodes arisen?

Numerous books told me the answers, so I thought I knew. I’ve dug out my earliest notes from that initial research, a tad cringe-worthy, but early ideas set in writing often are:

The ancient geographical theory of Ptolemy of the second century A.D. … lent itself to deceptively scientific ideas about the globe being like any gravity-governed body: stability of the earth’s rotation on its axis was dependant on balance, and therefore the distribution of land mass above and below the equator was assumed to be equable. Hence, the southern continent could be expected to be a reflection of the Eurasian land mass, located behind the mirror of the equator.

Ptolemy, symmetry, continental balance: I had lapped up what other authors had written and figured it for erudition. But I remember the unease I eventually came to feel, a sick sort of feeling, because the scholar deep inside me was sceptical. Why? Because none of these books cited original sources. Because not one of my own conclusions cited original sources.

I was taking everything and everyone on the basis of authority. And supposing everyone before me had likewise taken it purely on authority, I wondered what might be at the bottom of it all—tortoises all the way down, perhaps?

In a perfect world, a historian would check the original sources for everything. If you have not checked the original source, don’t put it in your history, because you just don’t know.

But historians do not have infinite time, resources or sanity, so the second-best option is to rely only on other authorities who have checked the original sources and demonstrate rigour. Even historians citing their evidence sometimes make errors of interpretation, translation and context, and something so seemingly minor as a misplaced word can have major ramifications. Small errors can compound into significant misunderstandings, major mistakes or even lead to the creation of full-blown myths that sweep a discourse.

In the third-best option, you are willing to rely on those who cite nothing original and—well, neither they nor you are really historians at that point. You are writers, possibly of fiction. I realised all those years ago that that was me—writing a story, not a history.

So, driven by a healthy dose of self-loathing for how lazy I had been, I went to the original sources (to the extent that was possible). What I found was this: not Plato, not Aristotle, not Ptolemy nor any other of the dozens of ancient scholars I was able to read mentions symmetry or the need for the hemispheres to contain equal quantities of land to provide the earth with its poise—a concept I refer to as equipoisure.

The popular understandings about symmetry and balance are unadulterated myths. It really was tortoises all the way down!

As for the many modern writers and historians who state that the ancients did believe in Antipodes because of symmetry or a theory of balance—not one cites a jot of evidence. They don’t because there is no evidence (I say this to the best of my imperfect knowledge—this is one of my core claims awaiting corroboration or falsification; ego prefers corroboration, but both options get the job done).

This was a major revelation, for me if not broader humanity. The implications are huge. Take away the old chestnuts about symmetry and balance, and one of those fundamental questions historians are compelled to ask has never been fully answered—the why question.

That is, why did people in the past construct the idea of a massive southern continent and then choose to passionately believe in something that didn’t exist?

To answer that required evidence. I buried myself in treatises of natural philosophy, journals of explorers, old geography texts, proposals and memorials, letters, histories and maps—lots of maps. Luckily, researchers both amateur and professional have done a superb job of digging up innumerable artefacts that tell us something about the imaginary southern continent.

Though I am sceptical by nature and by trade, there is no denying the incredible work of these historians who precede me—and I fully acknowledge that my own work rests entirely on theirs. But…

I check their sources whenever I can, just to make sure. Sometimes—more often than most historians let on—something doesn’t quite add up. Perhaps a misinterpretation, perhaps an omission, perhaps a mistake. Sometimes it is mere minutiae, and sometimes it changes everything.

The result of my research is Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent (available from Monash University Publishing and select book stores). I chart the European idea of a mythical southern continent, an idea so potent in the minds of its fanciers that it helped shape early modern history. I ask a lot of why questions, and provide a few answers. Some of them may turn out to be right.

F**k the Oxford Comma

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

A minor quibble, not a matter of international import, merely enough to provoke the occasional fit of inappropriate rage: I am sick of well-meaning people, unaware of their own blinkered knowledge of the many standards of global English, pointing out what they believe is the grammatical howler of a writer having omitted the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma? It’s a little thing, like half a pig’s tail. In a list of three or more items, most Americans and some of the British include a comma before the “and” (or “or”) preceding the last item. For example, if such a person wanted to list “rage”, “apoplexy” and “sadness”, they would write rage, apoplexy, and sadness. The difference is merely that comma before the “and”.

Use it or don’t use it; for the most part, it’s mind-numbingly unimportant. Neither form—with or without the extra comma—is more or less correct. It is a custom, and only a custom, that differs by country, by institution and by person. It is not some rule of usage prefaced upon inviolable linguistic laws discovered once the human genome was decoded. Dealer’s preference.

And yet it is so very common to receive straight-faced correctives, often from Americans, telling one they have erred for want of an Oxford comma. Such mindless prescriptivism is maddening. It shouldn’t be, but the contradiction inherent in the act just sets off a certain kind of person (that person would be me).

As for what the conscientious writer should do—that is, a writer not bound by custom and merely looking to maximise clarity and readability—there tend to be two main arguments put forth, one from each camp.

Those who discourage use of the Oxford comma point out that it is normally redundant. They are right, from the perspectives of both syntax and prosody. The “and” that comes before the last item in a list alerts the reader that it is the last item in the list (this is the syntactic function, concerned with arranging the units of meaning in a sentence). Likewise, the “and” encourages, or arguably necessitates, some sort of pause or change of rhythm as the sentence is read (this is the prosodic function, concerned with regulating the rhythm and melody of a sentence).

In this sense, then, the Oxford comma is heavy-handed. Writers are often encouraged to eschew surplusage, and the Oxford comma is nearly always, strictly-speaking, surplus to the minimum required to convey one’s meaning.

But not always. Sometimes a list becomes confusing without that extra comma. If I want to list the big boys, Jack and Jim without using an Oxford comma, you cannot tell whether I mean three things (big boys, Jack, Jim) or if I’m just referring to the big boys, who are named Jack and Jim. No such problem with the trusty Oxford comma in the mix: the big boys, Jack, and Jim. So, there is no doubt, an Oxford comma should be in every writer’s arsenal.

However, to say that just because it is useful once in a blue moon every writer should use an Oxford comma in every list they write across their lifetime—we’re talking tens of thousands of lists, tens of thousands of redundant commas—is silly. It’s just getting suckered into the prescriptivist mentality: we have to have a hard and fast rule! There can be no discretion! Man and woman are not responsible enough to make their own decisions about when a comma is necessary! Yes, dammit, we will have hundreds of millions and very soon billions of redundant commas to ensure no one misses that rare occasion when it is actually needed!

Dear oh dear, the grammar nanny state, the most minor of all the dystopias.

My suggestion for those who can’t just live and let live, who are seeking some sort of guidance on this pressing matter of comma security: go with discretion. Trust the writer to use that comma when and only when it is required for clarity.

I work as an editor for living, and that’s my policy. Mostly no Oxford commas, but I’ll throw one in every blue moon when it means the reader does not have to slow down too much or reread the passage to be sure of the author’s intended meaning. And if a writer does get the exercise of their discretion wrong—if they write a list without an Oxford comma and that causes some sort of confusion—point it out and put one in. Otherwise, shut up, piss off and leave me and my commas alone.

Hitchhiking Died With The Hitchhiker

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

On the articles page of my website I have just put up “Hitchhiking Died With the Hitchhiker”, an essay on hitchhiking I published in The Lifted Brow a few years ago. It recounts some of my personal experiences hitchhiking and tries to make sense of the decline in the practice. It’s meant to be an entertaining read, but hopefully offers a little illumination, too. An excerpt of what I’m calling “illumination” follows, and the full article can be found here.


So what does driving past a hitchhiker say about us?

What it doesn’t say is that we lack charity or good-will. Australian individuals donate around four billion dollars to charities each year, and something like five million Australians volunteer their time. But while our intentions remain good, what has changed is the nature of that charity and good-will: simply, ours is no longer a society willing to directly help the stranger.

There is a term for this—cosmopolitanism: the extension of hospitality, offered without coercion and without any expectation of something in return, to those people who are not part of our immediate community. It is the person stopping to help someone with their bonnet up on the side of the road; it is offering a bus seat to an old lady, or help to someone struggling with their shopping bags; it is saying hello to strangers, it is stepping in when someone is being abused or assaulted, it is helping to pick up the embarrassed student’s dropped bundle of books, it is asking someone in distress if they are okay.

At times we still see this cosmopolitanism, conspicuous and reassuring, but nearly always it takes a disaster to bring it out—the 2009 Victorian bushfires, for example, when scores of people banded together to offer assistance to the stricken. Or the 2011 Brisbane floods that saw people come from all over to help clear strangers’ yards and wash down muddy walls and pile debris on the curb, some even lodging dispossessed strangers in their own homes. So, yes, at important times people still rally to help strangers, and this is laudable.

But what if the important times are also the seemingly insignificant moments between the disasters: the moments when most of our living is done? Much as we may wish it were otherwise, life is rarely about the few big events that help push us in new directions. It’s about the fabric of everyday experiences that weaves these events together. It’s about the unexceptional, and unnoticed, and seemingly unimportant. If community and cosmopolitanism are intangibles that germinate and grow through our everyday interactions, the question becomes, how many of us embody these values in the moments when no one is watching, when there is no big psychic pay-off, when there’s no media and no ambassadors to tell us we should be helping? Because that’s when community and cosmopolitanism matter—if they matter at all.

Physical and not psychic distance is the true barrier separating two strangers. The barrier that determines whether someone is community or outsider, us or other. Breach that barrier—if only for a second—and strangers suddenly become party to an ill-defined but potent kinship. The instant two people connect in person, the altruistic impulse evolved in our species fights its way to the fore. It explains why the most successful hitchhiking is also the most proactive: approaching drivers at servos and truck-stops, anywhere you can have a brief conversation to remind people you are a normal person, just like them.

Every time I unholster the thumb, I see this quirk of nature at play. On the return-leg of my first hitchhiking trip, I was struggling to get a lift near the SA/NSW border. A truckie at the rest stop was having a meal before he turned in for the night, but he promised that if I was still there in the morning he’d help me out. Pete was his name. I was still there in the morning, bowling rocks at trees (0/0), so Pete gave me a ride, disregarding his employer’s no-hitchhiker rule. He took a bigger chance the next night when we parked at a popular truck-stop on the Nullarbor. Being in his cab was one thing; I sure as hell wasn’t meant to be sleeping on the deck of a dinghy lodged on the spine of his road-train. But Pete wanted to see me safe.

In fact, I can only think of one lift which was a bit unforgiving. I was a few hundred kilometres south of Canberra, taking a shortcut over the Snowies. Cars were few and far between. It was getting towards dusk when a leathery-looking miner stopped. I thought he said he was going to Tumut, which was good for me. Apparently he said Tooma. So about an hour later when he told me this was it, I was thoroughly discombobulated. All I could think to say was, “Thanks. Bye.”

Moments later the sun dropped behind the horizon. I scrambled to put on every article of clothing I had, which didn’t amount to much. Shivering in the dark atop a stark mountain tundra of grass and snow—yes, snow—I pondered just what use I could make of my hammock. Then along came some kindly semi-locals and rescued me, curious to know what a hitchhiker was doing at the turn-off to skiing fields in jeans, at night. I wasn’t sure myself.

Of course, most lifts are the opposite of that experience. In fact, earlier that day a couple and their son had picked me up, taken me to their home, given me a cuppa, offered me a bong, and then invited me to make use of their granny-flat. Maybe I should have accepted, I thought, watching my backpack roll out the back of their wagon as we did sixty down the main drag en route to dropping me off.

As it was, I had accepted a similar offer a few days before. A feller picked me up on the way to his mate’s place where he was set to go fishing, then watch the rugby and drink some beer. He asked if I’d like to come along. I said sure—sounds good. So we went fishing. I drank his beer. His mate gave me a bed. Next morning I was dropped at the turn-off to somewhere, while the driver headed to another mate’s for a bit of target practice. Yes, he did have a high-powered rifle on the back seat. No, I found nothing unusual about that.

The fact is, when people stop, or when you stop people, they want to help.

The only thing is, most people don’t stop.

[Full article here]

IV Reasons “Antipodes”, My New History Book, Shouldn’t Exist

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Like any virgin author, I’m excited to see my first history book ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT in stores. It has been a long and at times difficult road to publication. The truth is, it very nearly wasn’t so. Here’s how the book, mimicking the southern continent about which it muses, sputtered into and out of existence.

1: It started with an inland sea

The book is about the European idea of—then relentless search for—a massive continent in the southern hemisphere, particularly from the 16th through 18th centuries. So, first things first: I never intended to write a single word about Terra Australis, which is what this imagined land came to be known as.

When I began research for a PhD at the University of Queensland, my topic was the 19th century idea of an inland sea in the Australian interior. Great topic (was then, still is now, and I encourage any budding PhD students to tackle it). But, before I did any research on the non-existent Australian inland sea, I brushed up on the broader and longer history of what Europeans imagined for the entire southern hemisphere.

A year later I was still brushing up… and realised that there were so many interesting avenues of inquiry, so many things still to be said and so many maps to ponder that I was now in the Antipodes business (apologies to my PhD supervisor who must have thought I was utterly insane).

2: I did not know anything about anything

How does one become an expert? Decide you need to become an expert then read everything you can get your hands on, think about the subject constantly and have the audacity to both put your own ideas out there and be willing to tell others they are wrong (preferably when they are).

It was a truly daunting prospect having to learn all that had to be learned—completely from scratch. My subject covers two thousand years of history, from antiquity to the modern era. It involves all manner of sources from many different places (try communicating as a non-Italian speaker with Italian libraries for a fun experience), and covers multiple fields of scholarly inquiry.

Had I appreciated the true size of the subject and how unreasonable it was for a young scholar to try to understand it all, I would never have started. I had no idea I would need to translate ancient Greek philosophy! Or understand symbols on Medieval maps! Or grapple with the mental state of Christian explorers!

What may have looked like arrogance on my part, tackling such a broad swathe of history, was in fact pure naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, much like many of the explorers who set out in search of knowledge in the Age of Discovery and after. Luckily, I didn’t end up as a pile of sun-bleached bones in a desert, though at times it felt like I was as lost as Leichhardt.

That is why it took me 5 years to finish my research and complete my thesis—that, and the presence of a bean bag in my office.

3: Based on a PhD that was based on the book that didn’t exist

When I was a graduate student I was not shy in my disdain for the manner in which many research theses are executed at universities. My opinion on the matter has only firmed now that I work professionally as an academic editor.

That is, theses are often obscure and preposterously narrow in their focus (I used to joke to new people I met that I was researching the history of beer bottle caps, or the history of chip-board in Australia; no one ever quibbled).

They often focus on intrinsically uninteresting and unimportant content (but then everyone thinks what they are doing is important, yours truly included).

And, worst of all misdemeanours, they are often written as if the scholar is functionally illiterate and has relied on a random word generator—or hates readers and wishes them to suffer as much as they did writing the monstrosity.

So, I said to hell with literature reviews and other such wastes of everybody’s time, to hell with fusty academic phrasing and credential establishing, I’m writing a damned book and that is going to be my PhD. So I did, with informal language (sacrilege), a less than reverent tone (scoundrel), no literature review (fool) and so on (again, apologies to my supervisor; there was more than the odd raised brow and cautionary word over my caper).

It was all a bit iffy as to whether my examiners would throw me out of the academy or welcome me with open arms. In the end, I was lambasted for my attitude, and applauded for my content. The book is now considerably different to that PhD thesis, but the same heart beats in both.

4: My first publisher dropped me

In academic publishing, promising work is sent out to academic reviewers for their opinion and to give a yay or nay for publication. Some academics do this reviewing in a straightforward and fairly objective manner. Others are rooting for the writer; they know how hard it all is and choose to see the positive.

And then others—far too many others—seek to flay the writer no matter what, in the act that I heard Australian historian Tom Griffiths aptly describe as boundary riding. They seek to protect what is theirs, and with some academics what is theirs is all of academia—so get out of my territory!

To be blunt, they can be complete and utter miserable bastards. The whole process is notoriously bruising and disliked by just about everyone who has ever written a manuscript that must be signed off on by academics.

So, I was very pleased when after more than six months of messing around a respected English publisher received their reader reports and told me they wanted to publish. Many months more down the path, they unceremoniously dropped me—over email.

Their Australian agent had finally told them my book would not sell enough copies in Australia (we shall see). Unfortunately, these processes don’t take months, but years, and so I was set back so badly I very nearly decided not to bother trying to find another publisher.

I could not let it go, and finally I did find a good home at Monash (thanks to Nathan Hollier at the Press for not messing around in the least when it came to expressing interest and deciding to take it to print). But the book took 5 years to write, and then 6 years to publish. 11 years!

No, the book should definitely not exist.

But I’m glad it does. It is not boring and it is not pointless and it is not written to frustrate readers. In that sense, it should exist. Many said the same about Terra Australis, and they made that exist, too.

To see how, you’ll need to read the book. It won’t take 11 years. Unless you are my wife. She still hasn’t read it, but I am assured it is the very next history book she will read.

Trump Supporters and the Modular Mind

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Now that it’s done—Trump is President—the question becomes, how did it happen? How did all those people see his misogyny, sexual lechery, crassness, and willingness to lie and still decide he was the one to lead America into the future? The answer is the modular brain.

Pundits like Bill Maher would have us believe that Trump supporters are simply vile and stupid people, filled with hate and xenophobia. That does not go far to explaining it, though. So often, when a Trump supporter was engaged—quietly, not in a screaming match—they proved to be sympathetic, even appealing, humans. They were striving to understand a confounding world, they listened to those who had another viewpoint, they seemed to just want good things for people. Many had very difficult lives from which they simply sought the hope of better prospects for self or the next generation.

And, many acknowledged Trump’s enormous character flaws. They recognised the sexism and his bestial approach to women, his erratic behaviour, his love of name calling and fudging facts. For liberals, that was simply grist for their established position: it gave them perfect reasons not to vote for him (which they weren’t going to do anyway). But they also thought they should be reasons for others not to vote for him.

And yet none of it mattered because, as Professor Robert Kurzban explains in Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, different parts of the brain take over for different tasks. So, when potential supporters assessed Trump as a personality—assessing him the way we assess every person we meet in a social setting—the social part of their brain completely understood that he was a dubious character. There are so many interviews and clips with supporters where we see this.

But when it came to making a political decision, a decision seemingly about much bigger things than personality—we’re talking things like the economy and immigration and international relations—different modules of their brain kicked in.

These are the modules that were concerned in our evolutionary history with basic survival. Getting an advantage over competitors. Securing enough food. Securing a stable community that protected you and which you protected. In evolutionary times, did it matter that the most powerful members of your tribe were crass cave-men who grabbed their crotch and the crotch of their fellow cave-women? No, there was no time to worry about such niceties when survival was paramount. And that, in the eyes of many Americans, is what was on the line: survival.

When survival and prosperity is at stake, what mattered way back then in evolutionary times, and what matters now whether people wish to believe it or not, is power and projected power. Leaders in evolutionary times had to fight and kill or, at the least, dominate. That is the module—or set of modules—of the brain that were engaged to make the political decision to vote for Trump. Not the module about niceness, personality, or abstract values. It was the modules about threats and survival, and it didn’t matter whether those threats were illusory or real.

For people in America lacking prosperity, whose communities had suffered from job and infrastructure losses while they saw foreigners continue to enter their country and chase the dream that had seemed to escape them, Trump was power and he was promise.

America ended up with President Trump because the decision-making modules in millions of brains simply didn’t care that Trump is a repulsive character. He promised them things that they wanted—bring back the coal industry, make America great again, secure borders, kill unfair trade agreements, all vague things without a plan behind them—and he seemed like the sort of powerful man who could make it come true.

Hillary Clinton? She just promised decency, or at least that is what Trump supporters heard. Decency in a time of national upheaval and during a fight for survival—who cares, thought the brains of the Trump supporters?

And that is why there was so much said about Clinton’s emails. People who held decent values in one module of their brain but wanted to vote for Trump according to a different module experienced dissonance. Their brain sought to resolve that disagreement, and did so with confabulation. ‘Oh, I mustn’t like or be voting for Hillary Clinton because of the emails.’

The brain of the evolutionary beast won out, and so now Chief Cave Man Trump is President.

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