As I’m sure you know by now, my novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (published in the US as Whiskey & Charlie) was short-listed for the Small Press Network’s ‘Most Underrated Book Award’ (MUBA), alongside Anna Solding’s The Hum of Concrete, Ginger Briggs’ Staunch and Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman.
Each of the shortlisted authors was invited to give a speech at the awards ceremony last week, on the theme of being underrated. Disappointingly, I couldn’t attend the ceremony as it clashed with the grand finale of a community arts project my husband has been working on all year and I wanted to share in his big night.
I still wrote a speech, which we recorded for the ceremony but apparently it didn’t translate well to video (or perhaps I didn’t translate well to video). Anyway, I thought I would reproduce it here:
My son, who is six years old, is obsessed with ratings. Anything that’s discussed in our home, whether it be a movie, a book or even a meal we’ve eaten at a restaurant, has to be assigned a star rating. He doesn’t know this yet, but he is, in this regard, a miniature human version of the internet, which demands that we assign a value to everything we experience. Recently, I made the mistake of writing a status update about a visit I had made to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Since then, Facebook has pestered me daily to give Circular Quay a star rating.
On Urban Spoon, Trip Advisor, Goodreads and Amazon, every man and his dog is encouraged to give their two cents worth about the value of something. These days, apparently, everyone’s an expert, qualified to assess things they often have no true understanding or knowledge of, using a system that has no real benchmarks.
What value then are most of the ratings we’re presented with? Can we trust a system in which Dan Brown’s Inferno has thousands more 5-star ratings than F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? Do we even want to be highly rated by a society whose favourite book is about a character with a profession that doesn’t even exist – I mean, what is a symbologist anyway? Microsoft Word still puts a red squiggle underneath it so despite his millions of sales, Dan Brown hasn’t managed to persuade Microsoft that it means anything.
When it comes to television, popular taste is apparently even more dubious. One of the best rated shows of the last decade has been Big Brother, a contemporary Lord of the Flies in which adolescent boys stranded on an island are replaced with bogans in a suburban McMansion.
Call me cynical, but I fear we live in a world where marketers are telling us what to value, and then somehow tricking us into believing that we really do value it. We appear to have lost the ability to think for ourselves, and simply like what everyone else likes. As Connor Tomas O’Brien recently said on Twitter: ‘a crap book with a conversation around it is more compelling than a great book nobody is talking about.’ It seems to me that in such a world, it is almost a compliment to be underrated. But what does it mean, anyway, to be underrated?
Urban dictionary is an online forum in which anyone can contribute a definition to a word. One definition suggested that to be underrated simply means:
Not publicized as much as other things
According to the illuminating example sentence:
Most underrated stuff is better than the overrated stuff
I couldn’t agree more! I’m giving this definition 4 stars!
But my favourite definition was this one:
You’re the shit, you’re down as hell, and everything about you is great BUT people don’t think too much of you because they don’t know you.
This is how I feel about Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. As it happens, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is no stranger to the theme of being underrated. My protagonist Charlie is an identical twin. The second born, Charlie believes that Whisky, older by several minutes, is favoured first by their parents, then by the girls at school, later by women, potential employers and essentially everyone he meets. He works in advertising, lives in a fancy house in Toorak, drives a sports car. But beneath the trappings of success, Charlie believes him to be shallow, vacuous and pretentious; in a word, overrated.
If the world of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot was Amazon, Charlie would be The Great Gatsby and Whisky? You guessed it – Inferno. But when Whisky has a life-threatening accident which leaves him in a coma, Charlie is forced to reconsider the whole ratings spectrum. Maybe Charlie isn’t as underrated as he’s always liked to think. Maybe he’s actually a bit of an arsehole. Perhaps he is, in fact, Inferno.
*The Most Underrated Book Award 2013 was won by Merlinda Bobis for Fish-Hair Woman. Congratulations to Merlinda and her publisher Spinifex Press.