I feel that after a year of reviewing I should have arrived at some universal truth about the nature of fiction set in Canberra. There should something profound and weighty I can say about what I have learned over the course of this 12 month journey. Somehow, though, deep insights are eluding me, so perhaps we could start with some statistics.
At a forum in October this year called Writing the History of Canberra, Frank Moorhouse made known that, according to his research, something like 19 works of fiction had been set in Canberra. I was able to set him right, of course. With an end-of-year final update, I’ve identified 83 on the list, and with the increasing ease of self publishing this number seems to be steadily rising.
My own reading amongst the 83 is of course not representative. It’s been influenced by what I was interested in, what I could get hold of, what I hadn’t already read, and what I felt it was important to include in the Dinner at Caphs project. For what it is worth, though, here’s a bit of a summary.
Over the year I’ve read 41 works of Canberra-based fiction, plus the non-fiction Canberra Red, published in honour of the Centenary, and the non-Canberra-mentioning Happy Valley. Of the 41, the majority I would just call contemporary fiction, but the other genres work out like this:
Children’s fiction: 4
Classic fiction: 3
Crime & Suspense 10
Speculative fiction: 2
Young adult: 3
More than half – 61 per cent – of what I have read this year has been by women. A little under 20 per cent (although at times it seemed much more) has been self-published.
The most visited review on the blog has been Christmas in Canberra, helped out I’m sure by many people searching for recommendations for the best lunch spot on December 25. Second was Lightning, assisted by quite a bit of sharing on Facebook and a kind tweet from the author Felicity Volk. Interestingly, though, some enthusiastic tweeting by supporters of Christie Thompson didn’t result in the same level of traffic to my review of Snake Bite.
WordPress’ ability to share the search terms used to find a blog was always a bit hit and miss, and this has been further reduced, I understand, by increased protections put in place by Google. Nevertheless, it is flattering to know that the biggest group of search terms seems to have been people actually looking for the blog: about 11 per cent of identifiable searches used some variation on the term “Dinner at Caphs”, which is gratifying. Perhaps less gratifyingly, the next largest group, at eight per cent of searches, were people looking for brothels. I think my personal favourite from this group is the search for “transsexual brothels in fyshwick canberra”. My favourite search all year, though, was the person wondering “was captain cook hungry on his journey to australia”. I will eternally regret that Dinner at Caphs wasn’t able to provide the answer.
Like the types of books that I reviewed on the blog, the tags used to describe them are a bit of an artificial construct. Once a tag was used I tried to take opportunities to reuse them, and I did consciously work tag references in to reviews at times. I also regretfully left some references and tags out, as some reviews threatened to become dreary lists of Canberra place names. Some that I thought would be used regularly turned out to only be used only a couple of times – most famously, Caphs.
Notwithstanding this engineering on my part, by far the most common tag (excluding “Canberra” and “Reading”, which went on all posts) was “Brindabellas”, closely followed by “Lake Burley Griffin”. “Public service” came third, but other common themes were Old Parliament House, paddocks, and Mount Ainslie.
In terms of genre, it’s perhaps not very surprising that there is a preponderance of political and spy thrillers set in Canberra. Also perhaps not surprising that there are very few romances. Why set your romance in Canberra when you could have Paris? That most people search the internet for porn is a well established fact. That Lake Burley Griffin is one of the iconic totems of Canberra is also not surprising at all. I was, though, a little surprised and not just a little pleased that our encircling, enfolding Brindabellas are the things that denote Canberra more than anything else in fiction.
What does any of this mean? I’m not sure I know. I’d be interested in what trends and themes any of you regular readers might have identified. I do think that the three categories I came up with in May – Inevitable, Comfortable and Symbolic Canberra – have stood up pretty well, although they are hardly rocket science.
When I started out in January 2013 I said I wanted to “try to see this city the way others see it, and to examine how I feel about what they see”. I think I’ve done that, but I don’t think the process has moved me very far from the place I started. I’m still angered by lazy stereotyping of Canberra, although if it is well, or at least amusingly, written I can forgive much. I still warm to writing that is affectionate about the town. Although I like to think I’m open minded about criticism, I think I’ve got better at accepting that Canberra’s flaws as well as its blessings are part of an honest depiction. With 83 books about the place, there are also 83 views of what Canberra is, what it represents and what it might be.
Some readers have asked what I’ll be doing blog-wise now that the Centenary of Canberra is over. Dinner at Caphs will be going into a sort of suspended animation. There are some books on the list that I plan to get to at some time in the future, so there may be the odd intermittent addition, but I won’t be giving Caphs the regular attention it’s had during 2013.
Thanks to those of you who’ve followed along over the year, and particularly to those who’ve commented on and shared the posts. It’s been lovely to be part of a conversation with you, and to know that there are a few people out there reading and find something of value here.
To those of you whose interest goes beyond the Canberra theme, it’s time for the big reveal. I’ve had such a lovely time with Dinner at Caphs that I’ve decided to continue in 2014 with a slightly wider focus. If you are still peckish, perhaps you’d care to join me for Lunch at the Raintree Café?