Many readers are confused by Castro’s texts. Some readers may very well feel alienated by them, but such responses do not justify the dismissal of difficult novels by readers or publishers. Perhaps the problem, as Ley suggests, is that ‘we are being presented with books that are not difficult enough’ (34) and that we are becoming accustomed to opt always for the ‘easy read’.
The publication history of Castro’s ‘fictional autobiography’ Shanghai Dancing, perhaps his most disorienting and difficult novel to date, demonstrates the very real threat facing the continuance of a vibrant and challenging Australian literature. Despite being a highly acclaimed, award-winning novelist, Castro could not get any major publishing houses to publish Shanghai Dancing. As he explained: ‘I have to put it baldly: I was being forced to dumb down…People wanted things “clarified”. The word that was used was “signpost”. I thought, hang on, this book is about dissociation! So I walked away before I was kneecapped’ (Sullivan 3). Shanghai Dancing was published in 2003 by Ivor Indyk and his newly established, independent Giramondo Press. It went on to win the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2004; the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, Book of the Year, 2004; and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, The Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, 2003. It was also long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2005 and short-listed for the Festival Awards for Literature (SA), Award for Innovation in Writing, 2004 and The Age Book of the Year Award, Fiction Prize, 2003.
Ley cites Donald Barthelme’s insistence that art is difficult ‘because it wants to be art’ (36). He argues correctly that works which ‘test the boundaries of form are essential to a literary culture because they explore the limits of expression and thus the boundaries of the self’ (36).