“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Friday, October 29, 2010

Writers and Values: A (Final?) Response to Overland

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.


Jane GW said...

Hi Emmett - it's Gleeson-White. First up, I liked your piece and that you made some good points. And I'm glad you got the point about social realism. Definitely not what I'm after.

I didn't think that you were against including the political within fiction, I thought you were saying two contradictory things at once - first, that it's problematic after a century of linguistics to assume that literature can be 'about' anything, and therefore that literature that attempts to engage with the world, with the big issues of the day - literature with a political intent, by which I mean literature which engages with power in all its forms - is somehow compromised or not possible.
Second, you say your book is 'about Washington post 9/11' and 'Point Omega' is 'about the Iraq War'. So it's OK for you and DeLillo to engage with these political issues in fiction but not for OL to ask for fiction that engages with the world and its politics. Or that's how I read it anyway.

And as far as I'm concerned, your second point does not apply to me - and I may have been wrong to think it doesn't apply to Jacinda, but I read her calls as conditional, not absolute (which I discuss in a comment on the OL blog). (And I think you mean 'prescriptive' not 'proscriptive', which relates to prohibition.)

My views of literature are by no means anti-intellectual. You completely misread my piece - I say you raise all these objections, related to authorial intent, reader response, the elusiveness and multiplicity of language, rightfully so, AND I still think we can attempt to engage with the world in our fiction. I don't see why one has to exclude the other. And in practice you seem not to either (eg your novel 'about Washington post 9/11').

I salute your search for existing literature that is politically engaged. As fiction editor, I don't want texts that can be reduced to politics alone, I don't want fiction that is bereft of imagination. And nowhere imply it. (Perhaps you haven't read 'Carpentaria'.) I do hope to do exactly as you say - locate and publish old and new voices. I too look forward to seeing what we uncover. So thanks for that.

Emmett Stinson said...

Dear Jane:

Thanks for your comments.

Your point about 'about' is, I suppose, fair but facile; this doesn't constitute a contradiction per se, but, nonetheless, I'll agree it would have been clearer if I'd placed the 'abouts' in scare quotes (sigh). And, no, Delillo and I don't have an 'about' club (and, for that matter, I prefer Alexis Wright's work to his).

I do, however, maintain that complex linguistic acts like literature cannot simply be 'about' things (and I actually address this in the post above anyway).

An imperative is not conditional, and I don't see how you can read it that way. If I said, 'I would prefer you to wear read shoes,' that would be conditional. An imperative is to say 'Wear red shoes'--a command in which 'you' are the understood subject. There's nothing conditional about that.

I did mean proscriptive. If I say, 'You must wear red shoes,' (in the sense that I understood Woodhead to be saying one must write 'politically engaged fiction') then the 'must' is a a deontic modal subjunctive. The implication is a proscription against wearing shoes that aren't red. (although it's implied, I suppose that technically one has to say 'must not' to get a subjunctive of prohibition and and thus a true proscription--so you may have a certain pedantic point).

I still don't know what you mean by 'engage with the world in fiction' and nothing in this comment or your previous post clarifies that for me (or do you mean fiction should simply include contemporary 'issues' (i.e. whaling) as if works of literature were complicated newspaper articles? If so, I would respond thusly:

Jane GW said...

Hi Emmett - thanks for your reply to mine etc.
Interesting you should say my point is facile - I thought the same about yours! That you're happy to assume as most readers and writers do that fiction is 'about' something, despite a century of theoretical work that questions our common sense assumption that words and their objects or referents have any relation. You're rigorous in your case against OL but lax in your own arguments.

I know an imperative is not conditional, but I read Jacinda's call for writers to engage with the world as conditional on the times: 'If we want literature to matter in this epoch, then we need a literature that engages with the questions of this time' - while Rome is burning, then our writers shouldn't be fiddling. ie because there are so many things wrong with the contemporary world, then there is an imperative to write fiction engaged with issues of the day.

Point taken about 'proscriptive' - but I don't see that in Jacinda's piece. And I'm certainly not trying to be pedantic.

As for engaging with the world in fiction - I do not mean 'fiction should simply include contemporary "issues". Unless you think that '1984' or 'Carpentaria' simply include contemporary 'issues'.

I'm intrigued by your desire to reduce OL's comments to the simplest and most facile of readings. To anti-intellectualism.

Emmett Stinson said...

Which point of mine is facile? You don't specify.

As I noted before, the 'abouts' probably should have been in scare quotes; your point is 'about' copy-editing, not a serious objection.

Moreover, I don't mind saying 'about' because I do not hold a reductionist position on art (i.e. I don't really think books are 'about' things). It's not about being rigorous with my prepositions, but rather about the conception of literature. You're fixating on a detail and missing the point in so doing.

You keep talking about how you 'read' Jacinda's argument while ignoring the text of what she actually said; terms like 'moral and aesthetic imperative' don't fit with your reading, full stop. You continue to ignore this.

I read the position several editors of OL have advanced as reductionist, attempting to create a direct mimetic link between world and art; until the concept of 'engagement' is defined in any way whatsoever (again, what does this mean?), I cannot see it any other way.

Although I disagreed with Rjurik and Jacinda, I thought their points in response were considered and I share some sympathy with what they are trying to do (I just think they are approaching it the wrong way).

Ultimately, 'engaged' literature isn't my idea; it's not incumbent upon me to explain what it is . . .

Emmett Stinson said...

Dear Jane:

I've just read your comments on your own OL post, which are much clearer. I've responded briefly there.

Jane GW said...

Dear Emmett - thanks for your comments over at Overland.
Just in reply to the facile thing - facile is possibly the wrong word, inconsistent would have been better. I do say what I'm referring to: the 'about' issue that follows my observation.
I don't think it's just a copyediting issue, ie a want of quote marks. As I say, I want OL fiction to attempt to grapple with questions 'about' the world - and nowhere say I want to reduce it to this - and you mention a novel 'about the Iraq War', also not wanting to reduce it to its content. And yet you found these two views mutually exclusive.
Anyway, we seem to have reached some agreement or at least begin to understand what the other's saying, so I won't go on.
cheers, Jane

phill said...

I don't have much to add to this debate, both parties have explored a wealth of sources and viewpoints and still there's no clear 'answer' (just as, to my mind, there's no clear question). But I did want to possibly go off on a tangent and ask after this particular statement:

'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.'

Is this really the case? I had always imagined creative writing programs to be much like an engineering degree; publishers hovering over the lecturer's back, asking after the most promising talent and signing them up quick-smart. Do they really take that little interest?

Emmett Stinson said...

As I understand it, U.S. programs do have well-established connections with publishers, but in Australia any such connections are very much ad hoc where they exist at all. Certainly, those coming out of my M.A. program weren't getting such support, nor have students at other Universities that I know of.

Publishers may casually enquire of writing lecturers whether they have any talented students students, but publishers don't take any systematic interest (and many of the publishers I've spoken to will complain about the 'low quality' of writing produced by CW graduates, although, again, publishers are thinking in terms of what will sell by and large). The University of Melbourne does have the Penguin Prize for CW students, which leads to manuscript development with an editor and a chance to speak to key Penguin personnel, but this sort of arrangement is very much the exception and not the rule.

phill said...

Interesting. I'm curious as to why there is this lack of connection. Surely seeing what CW students are writing will give an indication of what they are reading and therefore what they might spend their money on. Not to mention that CW students' manuscripts could be bought quite cheaply. Perhaps this calls for CW courses that focus on producing marketable manuscripts? Anyway, thanks for the info.

Emmett Stinson said...

Well, the argument (or at least a common one) is that CW students don't read, and especially don't read the very publications that are likely to publish them. Regardless, I don't think any publisher would make money on books targeted solely at CW students. I suspect that market forces will come to bear more directly on CW programs in the future (since that's the case with almost everything right now), but, I'd ultimately prefer that this be resisted to some degree.

phill said...

Oh certainly, I shuddered a bit when I considered the marketing machine getting its claws into CW programs (not that I've been part of any, but still, the thought is there). But with initiative such as Authonomy and the ease and target demographic of digital distribution, it can't be very far away.

LP Tunis said...

No matter how much CW students read or don’t read they would never be numerous enough or sufficiently representative in other ways to give the publishing industry any idea of what will sell - why wouldn't the industry (as it does) just pay attention to sales?

I believe some universities, such as RMIT, do have a closer link to the publishing industry but, as a CW student myself, I don't see students who are after commercial success – unless this is something they aren't willing to admit to – and they are ultimately the consumers of CW programs. Is this a fault on their part? Does this matter? Writing will always have a difficult relationship with sales as both popular success and its very lack seem to be capable of legitimating an author critically (if only, in the case of the latter, to the few dedicated readers they have).

I find it rather amusing that people are so caught up on such programs. In a comment on Overland, Jeff Sparrow complained that in such programs it’s said ‘every novel must show not tell’ – clearly this is a cliche about writing classes rather than a cliche within writing classes – whilst someone else likened the whole thing to an Orwellian drive to purge creativity (at least that’s how they imagined it might be – well stop imagining and find out, stop using said creativity and do some research!). Why is writing so different from say film, fine art, photography, architecture and so on? Have these failed in some way?

My only real concern is that being housed in a university setting they will inevitably favour teaching staff that have PhDs and who are widely academically published over writers who are just writers. Over time, as CW programs mature and as they employ more CW graduates, there’s a real danger of the courses becoming increasingly isolated (in terms of styles and ideas), academic and inward looking. I would still like there to be lecturers who are concerned with ‘how fiction works’ and elements such as narratorial and point of view techniques – quite simply with ways to bring things alive on the page, however this may be done, quickly and with an immediacy. But at the moment I wouldn’t go so far as to say that craft is looked down upon – there’s a real mix of approaches.

Elle said...

Oliver--I share your concern about PhD students being favoured for teaching positions in universities. My own experience during a CW degree at a Melbourne Uni was with unpublished PhD tutors. Not that being unpublished makes someone a bad writer (it must have been a coincidence that the quality of their writing was abysmal).
Emmett compared the US system to the Australian one in Kill your Darlings, 'Australian creative writing programs are inherently both more open and diverse: admissions are far less exclusive, students within programs have disparate levels of experience'. In my opinion, this dilutes the quality of undergraduate teaching and disadvantages the people who are good writers. Sure, it may be egalitarian, but it's preposterous that science students etc. can take creative writing subjects. I don't rock up to Molecule Telescopes 101 and make science students listen to my erroneous, cliché-burdened algorithms.
That comment might have revealed my ignorance about chemistry, but, I do think that admissions processes should be based on merit.

Emmett Stinson said...


In the U.S. undergrads are generally taught by M.A. students (rather than PhD. students), and science students are also allowed to take CW classes there, so there's absolutely no difference (and, to me, there's nothing preposterous about it, unless you are coming from a basically elitist position). U.S. CW programs become exclusive at the postgrad level, generally. I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience, but the problems you raise here are about systemic issues, too, in particular, the government's failure to fund universities properly for about two decades...

Elle said...


As far as the comparison between the U.S. and Australian system goes, I can't claim to know much about the former. But why is is elitist to have an admissions process based on ability for undergraduate CW courses when it is normal to have one for other subjects? To do a Bachelor of Science you need to prove that you understand the core principles of maths and science.

Emmett Stinson said...

First of all, this is a bad comparison: science and math (like language) is a cumulative process; you can't understand the later stages without first understanding the earlier ones; even though CW course have prereqs, it's much harder to claim the knowledge is cumulative in this way.

The second issue is about the purpose of an undergraduate education, which is not purely vocational (not yet, anyway!); part of the goal of an undergrad degree (and inherent in the Melbourne model's emphasis on breadth) is a desire to encourage students to sample other disciplines and modes of thinking--why should science students be excluded from CW any more than they would be excluded from a poetry or an intro anthropology class?

Moreover, as a teacher, I've often had students from other disciplines who were excellent CW students...again, I'm sorry to hear that you had a bad experience, but I don't think an exclusive model (esp. at the undergrad level) is a good way for CW to go.

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