“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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book Review: The Sleepers Almanac, No. 6

Sleepers Almanac, No. 6
Sleepers Publishing

Over the last six years, The Sleepers Almanac has gone from being an upstart anthology of short fiction to becoming an established venue for presenting some of the best and most exciting new Australian short fiction. This year’s edition features work by more established writers, including Cate Kennedy, Steven Amsterdam, Kalinda Ashton, and David Astle, as well as emerging authors.
The publication of this year’s edition is a Janus-faced event; on the one hand, it marks the end of the Almanac as a print publication, while on the other, it ushers in the birth of this anthology as an iPhone application.  For this year, we’re lucky enough to get the best of both worlds: on top of the print Almanac, Sleepers have simultaneously released an iPhone application that collects the first six volumes together (Full disclosure: I’ve published stories in two previous volumes of Sleepers Almanac).
The anthology is a wonderful mix of styles and genres; there are too many good stories to name them all, but here were some of my favourites: Nick Levey’s ‘Sue and Joe Chase a Light Hovering about the Treeline’, which recounts a conversation between two people who are pursuing what appears to be a UFO; Steven Amsterdam’s ‘Water Is Wide’, which is subtle and moving story about a mother who is worried about her son’s strange behaviour; Helen Richardson’s ‘King of the Air’, a claustrophobic tale about a birdwatcher with ambiguously malevolent intentions; Ryan O’Neill’s ‘The Beginning of the Sentence’, a clever metafiction that depicts an ESL teacher’s failing marriage through the prism of his class’s language exercises; Jon Bauer’s ‘Uncle’, a Freudian fable that carefully treads the thin line between the grotesque and the absurd; and Laurie Steed’s ‘The Punch’, which tells the story of several characters whose lives unexpectedly intersect.
My favourite story, however, is David Astle’s ‘Nymphomaniacs’, which depicts a love affair that develops between an entomologist at the Melbourne Museum and a teenage boy. This story recalls A.S. Byatt’s ‘Morpho Eugenia’ from Angels and Insects and similarly employs a scientific, insectine language to describe this unusual relationship.
As always, the anthology is cleverly sequenced, and many stories are linked to each other by shared themes, objects or concepts. This thoughtful editing results in a collection that feels far more unified than most collections of disparate authors. As in the past (and hopefully in the future!) the sixth edition of The Sleepers Almanac offers an intriguing snapshot of contemporary Australian short fiction that’s a must read for anyone who is interested in what’s going on in our national literature.

The Almanac will be launched at the Bella Union Bar in Trades Hall by Jon Bauer this Thursday at 6 p.m.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Literary Links: Why All of My Posts Will Now Be about Tao Lin

A quick tip for those wanting to increase your blog traffic: write about Tao Lin. My Tuesday review of his new (and excellent) Richard Yates resulted in, like, a, uh, virtual stampede to my blog after he posted it to his Twitter account. All props to his e-entourage. Anyway, if everyone commits to this plan, we could make this Internet shit 100% Tao Lin all the time (the Tao Linternet?). Who's with me?

So, in the interest of increasing web traffic to this blog:


Anyway, here are this week's literary links:

•  New York Magazine lists its twenty most anticipated books for autumn (how northern-hemisphere centric!). Tao Lin’s Richard Yates gets an honourable mention. Other than that, the only book on here I’m particularly interested in is Tom McCarthy’s C. I’m reading his novel Remainder right now, which is good in a systems-novel kind of way; it’s a must-read for those interested in second-generation cybernetics or Niklas Luhmann. So all five of you should get it.

•  Someone gets upset about something Jonathan Franzen does. Get used to this headline for the next several months. Jennifer Weiner (tee-hee!) calls for ‘non-Franzen novels about love, identity, families’, which accurately describes just about every boring novel published ever, non-Franzen or otherwise. Don’t we have enough of those? I would prefer more non-Franzen novels about demonic polar bears or people staring intently at rocks.

•  The Andrew Wiley v. Publisher standoff has been resolved (sort of). Rich publishing-types and famous authors everywhere can now breathe easily. Phew! I’d love to know the actual royalty deal on this one (and we all know it will be leaked soon enough).

•  A checklist of all Thomas Bernhard’s publications in English. Just in case you were trying to collect them all.

That’s it. If you want more, you’ll just have to read the internet yourself.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Continuing Saga of Ted Genoways and VQR

Last week, Ted Genoways, Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) and author of the contentious essay 'The Death of Fiction?', was accused of workplace bullying that may have lead to the suicide of one of his employees. Yesterday, the University of Virgina announced that it would be conducting an investigation into managerial practices at the VQR, which you can read about here. Incredibly, the story has even made onto the Today Show in the U.S. (and, as an aside, how creepy are the Today Show TV presenters?):

It also appears that the deceased employee had contacted university administrators more than a dozen times to complain about his treatment, and at least one co-worker has also supported the claim that Genoways engaged in bullying. Genoways has released a statement, but refuses to be interviewed about the events (so far).

Even stranger details have come to light: theoretically Genoways is currently on leave from the VQR because he has received a Macarthur Guggenheim Fellowship, but apparently both the interim editors and Genoways have submitted rival versions of the newest VQR for publication. Curiouser and Curiouser. You can get most of the details here.

I will also note the irony that Genoways, who has argued for a return to 'moral' fiction, is accused of these actions. Perhaps reading 'ethical' fiction actually doesn't make you a better person?

On the topic of Ethics, we should perhaps consider the words of those great philosophers, the Coen brothers:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: Richard Yates by Tao Lin

Richard Yates
By Tao Lin
Melville House Press

Tao Lin’s Richard Yates is a novel about a 22-year-old male who falls in love with a 16-year-old girl he has met over the internet. Despite its contentious subject matter, however, Richard Yates is a surprisingly subtle and moving novel that succeeds due to its intense – indeed, borderline obsessive – focus on the banalities of the everyday lives of its two main characters.
Although Tao Lin is certainly not a household name, his work has attracted a sort of cult following in the United States, due to several of his writerly idiosyncrasies, including an incredibly pared-back, minimalist style, a focus on vegan dietary issues, and a tendency to employ seemingly autobiographical figures that blur the line between fact and fiction. For example, Tao Lin was arrested for shoplifting at an American Apparel store; he then documented the incident in his appropriately titled novella Shoplifting from American Apparel.
The main characters in Richard Yates are ‘named’ Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, in a reference to the child film stars of the same name, who are also six years apart in age. The book opens by documenting the start of their relationship, and some narrative tension is introduced by the two characters’ attempts to meet without drawing the attention of Dakota Fanning’s mother.
But this is a book propelled by character relationships rather than tense plotting. Indeed, long sections of the book simply consist of long internet chats between the characters. Although these dialogues are often funny, they are also extremely banal; while this is initially disarming, eventually the reader begins to feel like a voyeur, privy to the innermost intimacies of this couple. The effect is almost like reading the love letters of two people you have never met. This incredibly clever and well-managed effect leads to a sense of claustrophobia that ultimately mirrors the slow unravelling of the young couple’s relationship.
Even more impressively, Lin manages to achieve this effect through incredibly simple prose. Indeed, his style is so minimal that he makes Brett Easton Ellis and Raymond Carver look like Herman Melville. The writing, however, is never boring or flat, and the simplicity of the prose actually serves to make the book even more affecting and moving. (Indeed, the closest analogues to Lin’s style may be in film; for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and Wong Kar-Wai’s Chunking Express – which is mentioned in the book – work by a similar logic.)
But for all of the sadness in the book, it remains playful. The title Richard Yates refers to the American writer of the same name (and, as an aside, Richard Yates was the model for Elaine Benes’s father on Seinfeld). Although the characters are occasionally seen reading Yates’s novels, the book’s title is essentially ambiguous. Is Lin referring to the fact that most of Yates’s novels are about relationships that fall apart? Is Lin, a cult author, acknowledging his own position by referring to another author with a cult following? It’s impossible to know.
This is a powerful and deceptively simple novel that manages to imbue the everyday with an incredible significance and meaning, a fact that Lin both acknowledges and ironises by ending the book with an index that includes such terms as ‘Taco Bell’, ‘zombie’, and ‘hamster’. While this is an unconventional novel, it’s one that will undoubtedly appeal to readers of both experimental and more traditional narratives. This is an incredibly subtle and complex narrative composed out of extremely simple materials.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Where Are All of the Novels about Last Weekend’s Election?

Many thoughtful commentators and lovers of literature have recently pointed out how writers – particularly those ivory-towered intellectuals who have attended creative writing programs – have failed readers by ignoring important, contemporary social and political issues. I couldn’t agree more, and the events of last weekend have only proven that contemporary writers are little more than aesthetes and narcissists with no concern for anything beyond themselves.
            Saturday’s Federal Election has resulted in an unprecedented political situation: Australia has a hung parliament, and it remains unclear which of the two parties will be able to form a coalition with independents in order to rule as a minority government. Indeed, should no such coalition be formed, it’s possible that the Governor General may send Australians back to the polls by calling for a double dissolution of Parliament (which is basically the same situation that almost lead to the dissolution of George Clinton’s Parliament in the 1980s).
            In a time of such political strife, it’s clear what the nation needs: a politically engaged novel. Personally, I am tired of getting my news from broadsheets, the radio, television and the internet. Sure, those sources are filled with ‘facts’ and offer interviews and up-to-date reporting on events, but what would really clarify the situation for me is a ficitonalised narrative populated with imaginary characters. Let’s face it: in terms of political insight, hard-news reporting will never be able to compete with the totally made-up shit written by novelists.
            And yet, here we are almost 48 hours after the close of Saturday’s polls, and not even one novel has been published recording Australia’s most important political event since a Prime Minister went for an ill-advised swim. The fact is that contemporary novelists are either unable or unwilling to write about politics, and Australian culture is suffering as a result. Who will chronicle the battle for Bennelong so that our future generations may understand the rise and fall of Maxine McKew? What bard will sing of the heroic triumph of Adam Bandt and his band of moderately left-wing reformists promising mild social changes that are unlikely to eventuate in the near future? What novel will tell the harrowing tale of a Liberal leader who was able to overcome the inhibitions of a repressive, religious upbringing to bare both his policy and his body in a pair of speedos? Was there ever material more fit for novelisation?
            Clearly, however, authors aren’t solely responsible for the apolitical nature of the contemporary novel. Much of the blame lies with Professors of Literature, who teach so-called ‘postmodernism’ and French literary theory. I even contacted a Professor of French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris to solicit a comment for this essay, but I ultimately couldn’t understand a word that came out of his haughty frog yapper. It was as if he were speaking an entirely different language (indeed, I suspect it was French, but, being monolingual, I can’t be certain). How can we expect authors to write an Australian political novel, if our teachers of literature won’t even converse in plain English?
            Yes, I can imagine the pathetic rationalisations that most authors would offer in response to my claims (that it is unfeasible to write a successful novel in two days, that Dickens wrote his chronicle of the French Revolution 70 years after the event itself, or that Tolstoy’s War and Peace recorded the French invasion of Russia more than 50 years after it occurred, while still others may claim that it’s completely absurd to suggest that novels should be reduced to journalistic reportage of contemporary events), but we cannot allow writers to explain away their moral impoverishment through recourse to logical argument and sound reasoning. Writers have an ethical obligation to write about social issues, even if they don’t know anything about them, aren’t interested in them, and their efforts result in works of absolutely no aesthetic merit whatsoever.
In fact, it’s not enough for novelists to write about current events; the truly great novel should predict the future. I want the novel of tomorrow today. I want the novel of three months from now last Thursday.
            I, for one, am tired of the incessant whingeing of these morally bankrupt dandies pretending to be authors. And that is why I have worked non-stop during the last several days to complete my gripping 90,000-word saga, Moving Forward, about Australia’s electoral process. Without any braggadocio, I can confidently claim that never have the poetic flows of interweaving lower-house preferences or the knuckle-whitening complexity of below-the-line senate voting been rendered with such lyrical precision, resulting in a timely, unputdownable, emotional roller coaster that is haunting, fully realised, and a rollicking good read.
I just want to end by noting that I have not written this book for any personal gain whatsoever, but rather out of a sense of moral obligation – out of an ethical commitment to write about political material that readers will understand. Due to my altruistic motivations, I have even instructed my agent that I am willing to settle for a modest five-figure advance when the book goes to auction. Interested publishers can contact me by email.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Literary Links: Australia Elects Its George Bush?

So, tomorrow Australians go to the polls with a set of underwhelming choices, which include a) the most right-wing Labor leader ever, b) the most right-wing Liberal leader ever, and c) a reformist third-party with no discernable ideology except for a loosely connected set of ‘left-wing’ social issues. While I support virtually all of the Greens social policies, I worry about the fact that they emphasise social issues rather than economic ones, and their practical detachment from the historical engine of left-wing reform (you know, unions, workers rights, the like, uh, proletariat and whatnot) makes me worry that they are a party who ultimately appeals only to the educated bourgeoisie (i.e. to people like me), which is worrisome to say the least. I remain convinced that being on the left-wing requires economic critique – particularly deep suspicion of the free market and economic rationalism – and, on that basis, aside from the SA, I don’t think that there are even any left-wing parties in this election.

Nonetheless, Tony Abbot is terrifying, and anyone who thinks there is no practical difference between Labor and the Liberals is absolutely kidding themselves. I fear tomorrow may be a variation on the U.S. election in 2000, and Abbot will be every bit as bad for Australia as Bush was in the U.S. But this is all theoretical from my end: I'm not an Australian citizen (but I hope to be someday!), so I can't vote.

So with that depressing thought in mind, here are few links to some literary stories from the week.

• Ted Genoways made headlines with his (in my opinion, awful) essay called ‘The Death of Fiction?’ earlier this year. But this week, details have emerged about his alleged financial mismanagement of the Virgina Quarterly Review. Questions have also been raised about his managerial practices, which purportedly have resulted in several employee complaints and have even been indirectly linked to the suicide of a former staff member. Yikes. On another note, it appears that dude is making $170,000 a year in his position as editor, which, if true, is insulting given that the journal that only has a circulation of 7,000.

Frank Kermode has died. He was a hugely influential literary critic, who strattled the divide between the New Criticism and Post-structuralism. He was also one of the last remaining visible public intellectuals in literary studies as well. So, it’s an end-of-an-era kind of a thing.

Meanland argues that aspiring writers have an obligation to buy literary journals. While this exhortation is a bit strong for my taste, it’s hard to argue with the point.

Jonathan Franzen does a video for his book, Freedom, in which he argues against author videos for books, which is unsurprising coming from a guy who would agree to be on Oprah’s Book Club and then complain about being on Oprah’s Book Club. Have a look below:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: Prose by Thomas Bernhard

By Thomas Bernhard
Seagull Books

Prose, which has just been translated into English for the very first time, was the very first book of short stories ever published by Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian author who would go on to become one of the most important and influential writers of the second half of the 20th Century. Bernhard is known for his digressive style, in which narrators speak to the reader in breathless monologues that jump from topic to topic. These narrators are typically obsessive, neurotic men, who find themselves unable to make contact with the larger world in any way whatsoever.
The stories in Prose are more or less miniaturised versions of Bernhard’s longer work. Most of the stories here are narrated by these disconnected characters, but often at the heart of their disjointed narratives is some sort of crime. The crimes involved can be as serious as murder and assault, or relatively innocuous. In ‘The Cap’ for example, a man finds a cap on the road while taking a walk; he becomes obsessed with returning the cap to its owner, lest anyone should think him a thief. But his attempts to find the cap’s owner are a comic failure; he goes from door-to-door in his neighbourhood, but his neighbours treat him with complete suspicion. His attempts to seem innocent only make him appear guilty of something else. ‘The Cap’ shows Bernhard at his very best; few writers could craft a motivating and interesting story out of the discovery of a lost object on the road.
Most literary debuts are a kind of glorified juvenilia – you can see the author still wrestling with form, voice and style. While Prose may not quite hit the highs of Bernhard’s very best work, neither can it be considered a lesser work either. The stories within prose are absolutely brilliant. This collection is both a must-read for any Bernhard fan and an excellent introduction for those who are interesting in reading this unusual and influential author. 

This review initially appeared on Triple R’s Breakfasters program. If you enjoy these reviews, then please support them by subscribing to Triple R as part of its Radiothon. You can subscribe by clicking here. This money goes to the station, not to me!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Voiceworks Interview

Voiceworks has just posted an interview with yours truly on their blog, Virgule. In it, I say many pretentious things, which are all couched in a slightly prickly, dismissive tone. So it's basically an accurate portrayal. Have a look here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Literary Links

•  Miguel Syjuco, author of the excellent Ilustrado, officially has the BEST AUTHOR PAGE EVER. Set-up like a faux fan-shrine, the page has a pink background, dancing penguins, and LOL cats. It’s perfect. As I said in my review of Ilustrado, Syjuco is the only author I’ve ever read who has aptly recreated the comic miscellany of the web in novel form; this page proves it.

•  Alison Croggon has an interesting article up on the Wheeler Centre website discussing the tendency to discuss works of literature as if they are ‘about’ things, rather than things-in-and-of-themselves. I’ve just written something in a similar vein that should be published in the next few months. At a moment when more and more people seem to be trying to instrumentalize literature (which capitalism, of course, already does by making books commodities) for moral and political ends, I think it’s really important to emphasize that literature doesn’t really work that way, or at least doesn’t have to. Croggon also mentions Sontag’s famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’, which is a piece of writing that I think many people could stand to read (or re-read) right now.

•  On the topic of the Wheeler Centre, Daniel Wood offers a pretty strident critique of Melbourne’s new Centre for Books Writing and Ideas by comparing it to his experiences of Edinburgh, the first UNESCO city of Literature. I don’t think I agree with him on this; it seems to me the Wheeler Centre is trying to do something very different (a point he admits) by emphasizing the diversity of Melbourne’s publishing/bookstore/reading culture rather than focusing on literature as such, but his argument is nuanced, thoughtful and definitely worth a read.

•  Stupid Article of the Week: Anis Shivani lists his 15 most overrated contemporary writers. It’s not that I care much for the writers he lists (although I do like some of William Vollmann’s work), but the bitchy ‘hot or not’ framing of the article actually recreates the very kind of celebrity gossip approach to literary discourse that he’s attacking. What’s most worrisome about Shivani is his ideological motivation, which can be seen in his definition of ‘bad writing’: ‘Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself.’ Oh, God. Are we really returning to the F.R. Leavis mode of criticism? Get ready for more of this: moral criticism is the new spring trend in literature.

•  Finally, in case anyone missed it, here’s Crikey on the allegedly perilous health of Red Group Retail, the company that owns both Borders and Angus and Robertson in Australia.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Free Event: Known Unknowns - From Blank Page to Bookshop

For all of you in Melbourne, next week I'll be speaking about Known Unknowns at an event hosted by the Publishing and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne. Here's a quick rundown of the content:

From Blank Page to Bookshop

Emmett Stinson had his first book, Known Unknowns, published by Affirm Press in June. Join Emmett, his editor Rebecca Starford, and his publisher Martin Hughes as they discuss the long and winding road between having an idea and publishing a book.

Wednesday 18 August
6 for 6.30pm
Arts Hall Graduate Lounge Room 222
First floor Old Arts Building
University of Melbourne
Parkville, VIC 3010

There will also be free wine and nibbles, for those of you who require other forms of motivation. Hope to see you there! Click here to RSVP.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: Kraken

By China Miéville
Pan Macmillain

China Miéville’s Kraken is nominally a fantasy novel about magicians in London, but this is a book that shares much more in common with the weird, paranoid vision of Phillip K. Dick than the adolescent wizardry of Harry Potter. Moreover, Kraken is simultaneously a crime novel, in which all of the characters in the book are in search of a MacGuffin, but the MacGuffin in this case happens to be an eight-and-a-half metre giant squid that has been preserved as a museum specimen. The protagonist of the story, Billy Harrow, is an otherwise normal man, who happened to working at the National History Museum when the giant squid was stolen. He is questioned by a division of the police who specialize in paranormal crime, and quickly introduced to London’s seamy underbelly of magicians, familiars and gods.
Those readers interested in Kraken purely for its plot will, by and large, find tight pacing, lots of unexpected twists, and an interesting casts of unusual characters, including a villainous and creepy father/son duo, named Goss and Subby, and a mob boss who is in fact a talking tattoo, among many others.
Miéville, however, is often popularly seen as an exemplar of the newer wave of genre writing, which increasingly incorporates ‘literary’ elements; this distinction between speculative and literary fiction is, of course, a false dichotomy, since the history of speculative fiction includes writers like Jonathan Swift, Thomas Moore, Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. So there’s no reason why speculative fiction can’t be literary and vice versa, but it’s nonetheless easy to see why Miéville’s novels have been given this tag.
Even though Miéville has argued that Kraken is a return to his roots in genre fiction, the novel’s broader thematic framework suggests a ‘literary’ bent. The title, for example, recalls Thomas Hobbes work of political theory The Leviathan; Hobbes’ work called for the establishment of both a social contract and a strong monarchy in response to the chaos of the English Civil War; Kraken details a civil war of ‘all-against-all’ (to use Hobbes’ term) amongst London’s magicians. The novel is also incredibly allusive, referring both to such high cultural figures as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Pynchon, Stevie Smith, Virginia Wolf and J.G. Ballard, as well as popular culture like Star Trek, Morrissey, and M.I.A. What is perhaps most impressive about Miéville’s novel is his comprehensive exploration of the metaphor of the giant squid – no possible meaning of this symbols is left unexplored (including the tentacles, the ink, the beak, and, in an inventive pun, a reimagining of the word ‘quiddity’ as ‘squiddity’).
Miéville is also an avowed socialist, and his political interests are reflected in Kraken, which describes a workers strike occurring across a division of magical labour. But the particular power of Miéville’s writing is the ability to make the everyday seem very strange. Nothing in Kraken is what it appears to be – letters, lightbulbs, and even iPods are all mysteriously transformed into otherworldly objects in the logic of the novel. Even this gesture, however, has socialist overtones and recalls Marx’s description of how everyday objects are turned into almost magical commodity fetishes through the logic of capital (Marx uses the example of a table, which, under the regime of exchange value, ‘stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas’). Indeed, Miéville’s entire description of the magical underworld of London could serve as a sort of extended metaphor for the hidden links of production and exchange within globalised, networked capitalism.
But for all the interesting thematic material in Kraken, readers attuned to ‘literary’ fiction will find the language inconsistent. While Miéville’s prose can achieve an interesting beauty through an impressionistic Beat aesthetic, at other points it is merely functional, and, at still others, simply clunky (e.g. ‘The police arrived at last, coming in a stampy gang.’).
Ultimately, however, this is a book driven by its narrative. And while most of the book makes for gripping reading, the final third is a minor letdown. The proliferation of twists and reversals towards the end of the book results in diminishing returns, so that, by the time we witness the final turn of the screw, it has a reduced effect. Moreover, for such a complicated narrative, the resolution itself feels both slightly rushed and a little too neat. But Kraken, in its vivid imagination and clever incorporation of incredibly disparate material, demonstrates why China Miéville has become a much-lauded writer of speculative fiction, even if this novel probably isn’t the best place for a neophyte to begin.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Literary Links: Hulk Smash Modern Novel

• Here’s another puff piece on the ‘crisis’ of the modern novel, in the form of a dialogue between Harry Mount and Michael Deacon called ‘What’s Gone Wrong with the Modern Novel?’; it begins well enough with Mount arguing that ‘if you took a random selection of books published in August 1810, most of them would be pretty dull, too. The situation isn't terminal: there's nothing in modern culture that stops a new Waugh or Proust publishing a masterpiece tomorrow,’ but then devolves into a discussion of how TV writing is so much better than novel writing. I agree that TV writing is totally awesome right now, but what the hell does that have to do with the novel? Also, have these guys ever read a book not published by a major multinational corporation? If I were Bruce Banner, these kinds of articles would totally make me turn into the Incredible Hulk.

• Newspapers seem to love statements of the obvious: here’s a piece on how current genre fiction is all like good and smart and stuff. Agreed. This has been the case for some time. Can we now please stop running articles on how ‘genre’ fiction and nonfiction are really, really good as if that’s news?

• There’s been a lot of chatter in Australia and the U.K. about how the agency model of bookselling (basically, the method that Amazon, Google and Apple use to sell ebooks) is almost certainly illegal under current trade law. Well, now the U.S. is getting in on the action and Amazon and Apple are being probed for price-fixing.

• Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Publishing offers a few thoughts on the problems currently facing publishers in Australia. I particularly enjoyed the coy reference to an unnamed bookseller creating problems for Scribe; I’ll give you one guess as to who that is…

• Here’s a sneak peek at the forthcoming biography of J.D. Sallinger, which is over 800 pages long and is being co-written by David Shields. Wow, Shields and Sallinger together – those are two great reasons not to read this book. On a scale from nauseating to suicide-inducing, how awful is the press coverage of this going to be?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When Creative Writing Programs Attack...

In the wake of Ted Genoways' Mother Jones article, 'The Death of Fiction?', a few different Australian journals have picked up his argument that Creative Writing programs are somehow responsible for destroying literary culture. I'm not going to offer a full description of why this argument is absolute bunkum (for the reason that I've written something longer on the subject that I've submitted for publication), but one problematic assumption I've seen in the Australian variants of these arguments is the notion that Creative Writing programs across the world are all the same. This is simply untrue.
I'm not going to argue that Creative Writing pedagogy is perfect (it isn't), or that I've always loved my writing instructors (I haven't), but I have been lucky enough to have several great instructors in both the U.S. during my undergraduate days and Australia during my M.A. at the University of Adelaide. The big difference between the two countries' approaches, however, is that the United States model is far more reliant on the workshop as the locus of pedagogy. But, here, that's just one of several methods, including lectures, one-on-one mentoring, and (often) the requirement that Creative Writing candidates produce as much literary criticism as they do creative writing at the Honours, Masters, and PhD level (indeed, there are very few PhD programs even running in Creative Writing in the U.S., but they are a total commonplace in Australia). At the PhD level, workshops are usually informal and optional (if they exist at all), and there isn't a hyper-competitive culture around fellowships, since Australian scholarships are, by U.S. standards, more readily available and comparatively quite generous (Ask U.S. PhD students in the Arts how they would feel about having a scholarship for four years at $26,000 (untaxed!) per year with no teaching requirements and no coursework, if you don't believe me).
For these reasons, Australian programs are both less exclusive (which means that, for better or worse, you get a wider array of both writing styles and levels of experience), and employ a wide range of teaching techniques. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing, although it means that Australian institutions will never have the prestige of exclusive institutions like Iowa or East Anglia (although, I ultimately think this is a good thing, too, since exclusive institutions tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies – they become famous for producing successes, and then produce more successes because the institutions are famous. You are welcome to dismiss this as ressentiment, if you wish). But I also think that it limits the damaging aspects of over-reliance on the workshop.
Creative writing workshops are great; they exist for the reason that they work, and they are an important tool, but they also have limits. As Rick Moody pointed out in his 2005 essay, ‘Writers and Mentors’, which you should read if you haven’t, CW workshops ultimately do resemble consumer focus groups. Speaking from my own experience, I think that, during the second year of my M.A., the workshop occasionally produced an unfounded crisis of confidence in my own work; whether or not my stories are actually any good (of course I think they are, but I would, wouldn’t I?), I was aiming to write a group of stories that were subtle and understated – I didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with a didactic ‘meaning’ at the end (there is ‘meaning’ there, or at least I intended there to be, but I wanted it to be something the reader had to work to infer, rather than being handed over and validated like a tram ticket). The dangers of understatement – of expecting the reader to put in some work – are twofold: 1) some readers, usually those with the strongest ideas of what they think literature should be rather than what it is, will completely miss the point altogether, and 2) understatement results in an ambiguity that can enable multiple readings of a text (although this is basically the point of understatement).
Not surprisingly, a few people in my class found my stories confusing, and often wanted them to be more pronounced, more ‘clear’. And to be fair, many of my stories are also about relatively unlikable people, and – although I think such notions are problematic – I do realise that most readers prefer sympathetic characters (and I often received complaints about the fact that my characters weren’t sympathetic enough). Even though I am an incredibly stubborn person in my own way, as anyone who knows me well will attest, I think that I did compromise some of my aesthetic ideals under the weight of the workshop, and, in worrying about whether or not readers would ‘get it’, I reshaped some of my work to be more overt than I would have preferred – much to its detriment. Part of the reason for this, I think, was that, in my particular course, there was too much reliance on the U.S. model, in which workshops were the only pedagogical method.
Thankfully, when it came to reworking the stories into my book, Known Unknowns, my editor did a great job of encouraging me to get rid of this more didactic material, and I’m very happy with the way the stories ended up, largely because of her work and keen critical eye. The irony of this, of course, is that I did have two book reviews that basically replicated comments that I had received from those few students in the workshop who didn't 'get' my stories – that the endings weren’t decisive enough (which was, of course, my intent), that they couldn’t see the ‘point’ of the story (because, of course, they had preformed ideas about what a story arc should be and how a story should end) – but there’s no point in worrying about these critiques. Such responses are simply going to result from the particular style I have chosen. And this, ultimately, is the limit of the workshop: writers aren’t writing for every reader, and not even every intelligent reader – sometimes the best thing you can do with workshop critiques is ignore them.
I am not, in any way trying to attack either the institutions I went to, my teachers, or my fellow classmates. For all my qualms above, they also did make some really useful suggestions about my work, but, even more importantly, they offered encouragement and provided a community of like-minded individuals with whom I could discuss writing and literature; in many ways, these functions of Creative Writing programs are possibly more important, at the postgraduate level, than the instruction itself.
At this point in time, I have no interest in workshops, and, aside from an informal meeting of friends, I couldn’t imagine wanting to take part in one again. At some point as a writer, you have to decide to go with what you think works, and not what a committee of writers around you think is best when surveyed by a show of hands. But I only got to this point through my participation in workshops.
What I like about Australian Creative Writing institutions in general is their openness, both in terms of accepting broader demographics of students and in eschewing a one-size-fits-all model. And it is only through those other kinds of knowledge transmission, those other pedagogies – both informal and formal – that writers can ultimately see the limitations of the workshop itself.