Friday, October 29, 2010
Earlier this week, new Overland Fiction Editor, Jane Gleeson-White, posted a response to my recent article in Kill Your Darlings on political fiction. By this point, I’ve already discussed these issues at length with several Overland editors, and there’s not too much new for me to say. But it might be useful to try to explain where I’m coming from and why I even took issue with Overland’s position to begin with. I’ll also note from the outset that my article was wrong on (at least) one point: Overland is clearly not advocating social realism as such—my bad, guys!
As to Gleeson-White’s article, I think she’s misunderstood my point—it’s not that I’m necessarily against including the ‘political’ within fiction (and thus she registers surprise when I point out that it’s possible to write great fiction with explicitly ‘political’ content). My concerns, thus far, have been twofold: 1) I (still) don’t understand what it means to write ‘politically engaged’ fiction and suspect the notion rests on problematic assumptions, and 2) I worry that Overland’s position is basically proscriptive, saying that writing must be ‘politically engaged’.
Gleeson-White, however, denies this second assertion, claiming ‘It seems to me that Woodhead and Overland are not claiming that all work “must be overtly political” – and nor would I,’ but this doesn’t square with Woodhead’s previous statement that: ‘our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them.’ From my perspective, an ‘imperative’ is imperative, not a matter of preference (but perhaps Gleeson-White is disputing that such fiction need be ‘overt’).
As to the first point, I’ve already delineated my concerns with Overland’s previous attempts to define ‘politically engaged’ fiction: their use of uninterrogated assumptions about ethics, aesthetics, the nature of language, and what constitutes a ‘political’ disposition in fiction, as well as a reliance on simplistic notions of hermeneutics (i.e. the interpretation of texts) and of the relationship between authorial intent, textual effect and reader response. I raised these concerns because these assumptions suggest a basically anti-intellectual notion of the ‘literary’. I expect such gestures in broadsheets, but not in Overland, one of the few journals that presents complex, critical analysis for a popular audience in Australia. (And if Peter Craven’s comments about Meanjin are to be believed—along with the (temporary?) discontinuation of Heat—it appears that we’re about to lose several of the other journals that provide such a space.)I also disliked the emphasis of Ted Genoways’s original piece (although he’s got his own problems right now), which Woodhead then took up: both place the ‘blame’ for problems with contemporary fiction on writers. This blame is misplaced. Over the last two decades, the publishing industry has been subjected to an incredible regime of economic rationalism. As a result, it is now incredibly hard for new writers of ‘literary’ fiction to place a book with a mainstream publisher, and those lucky/stubborn/talented enough to publish with a smaller house will rarely be paid anything even remotely resembling a liveable wage. This is not even to speak of the forces pushing writers to produce books that are ‘marketable’ rather than, you know, good.
Writers increasingly find themselves powerless in the face of a globalised, networked industry—are we now going to blame them for the output of those industrial networks? Even many ‘successful’ writers I know (I’m speaking here of people who’ve won major Australian prizes) are not able to support themselves through writing. Are the current struggles writers face—to maintain a ‘real’ job while finding time to write—not enough, or do we need to accuse them of ruining literature and laden them with ‘ethical’ burdens, as well?
I similarly took issue with Rjurik Davidson’s critique of Creative Writing programs. Not only are such programs often the only space in which emerging writers can receive both instructional and financial (via scholarships and stipends) support, but also they are one of the last institutions in which aesthetic merit is held to be a more important criteria of a text than its marketability. Whatever the flaws of such programs, they can’t be held accountable for the larger production of literature (and, indeed, few Australian publishers pay much attention to Creative Writing programs in any systematic way), and I fail to see how attacking either writers or Creative Writing programs will result in any material benefit. To do so is both bad theory and bad praxis.
The issue here is one of ‘value’: in the face of overwhelming economic rationalism, what possibilities exist for maintaining other forms of value—such as aesthetic merit—or, indeed, of creating new forms of value that are about something more than just the bottom line. Attacking writers, so far as I can see, does nothing to achieve this end, nor does attacking one of the few institutions that still supports some form of value outside of economic exchange.
My interest—which is reflected in both my radio reviews and this blog—is in locating the good fiction that is already out there, but, for the above reasons, has remained largely obscure. And good fiction is already out there, including ‘political’ fiction, like Martin Edmond’s Luca Antara (which offers a creative re-imagining of Australia’s discovery and colonisation placed alongside contemporary narratives of a man named ‘Martin Edmond’ driving a taxi in Sydney), or Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (a narrative about industry wreaking havoc on a small, U.S. town, in which the entire town is given a voice, thereby connecting the alienated individual with the social), or Wayne Macauley’s Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe (a surreal narrative about Melbourne’s housing crisis that also plays with notions of utopia and autonomy) or his Caravan Story (which is in fact a narrative about economic rationalism being applied to the arts!). All of these texts contain ‘political’ themes but do so in imaginative ways, and can’t just be reduced to ‘politics’ or even ‘political engagement’ as such (although they can be read that way—as I have just done). They are also all published by small publishers who still believe that there are values more important than money.
So that’s where I’m coming from, but I’m not sure that these larger objections really affect Overland much on a practical level: if these arguments for a ‘politically engaged fiction’ result, as Gleeson-White suggests, in Overland working to shape the future of Australian fiction by publishing new voices and new types of literature, then I have nothing to protest. Locating and publishing such voices (who, I presume, will include authors less well-known that Christos Tsoilkas, Alexis Wright, and Janette Turner-Hospital) is, in and of itself, a laudable goal, and I, for one, look forward to seeing what they uncover.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 12:10 PM