Over at Kill Your Darlings, Emmett Stinson has written an essay about two Australian responses to Ted Genoways’ much discussed polemic ‘The Death of Fiction’: Davina Bell’s ‘To My Generation of Precious Snowflakes’ (harvest, Winter 2010) and Jacinda Woodhead’s ‘A response to harvest’ (Overland blog, July 2010). Among other things, Genoways argues that ‘most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues – as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism’.
Stinson devotes half his essay to a critical discussion of Woodhead’s post and one paragraph to Bell – and so it reads to me more like an extension of his ongoing debate with Overland (with Woodhead and Rjurik Davidson) about the nature of fiction. I’m particularly interested in Stinson’s piece because it centres on the possibilities – or not, as Stinson seems to argue – of writing politically engaged fiction. And as the new fiction editor (from 2011) of Overland, with its overtly political brief, I’m keen to explore the possibilities of mixing fiction and politics in the 21st century.
Stinson dismisses Woodhead’s call for ‘a literature that engages with the questions of this time’ for reasons which include the fact that language ‘doesn’t have a discrete, unambiguous meaning’, the fact that literature doesn’t have to be ‘about’ something, and his own wariness about writers having moral obligations. But as far as I’m concerned these arguments do not preclude the possibility of writing politically engaged fiction. Perhaps surprisingly, Stinson concedes the same: ‘I’m not saying great literature can’t include explicitly political content … but to claim that all work must be overtly political, or that there even exists some clear demarcation between works that are political and those that aren’t, is simply untrue.’
It seems to me that Woodhead and Overland are not claiming that all work ‘must be overtly political’ – and nor would I. But I’d also say that in my role as Overland’s next fiction editor, overtly political fiction is what I’ll be hoping to publish.
Although Overland has left behind its origins in the Realist Writer, in 2010 it remains a literary magazine with a political bent. And so it seems natural enough to me that Overland in the 21st century would be endeavouring to publish new politically engaged fiction, to experiment with just what this might mean, to be at the vanguard of such writing. There is no shortage of subjects to engage with. In the 200th issue, for example, Christos Tsiolkas writes among other things about the devastation of the Amazon rainforests with the arrival of Europeans and Janette Turner Hospital writes about the transformation of the Australian whaling industry into an international tourist industry of whale watching and reverence.
For me the touchstone of contemporary, politically engaged fiction is Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which is as far from social realism as the Dreamtime is from the 21st century. It addresses, among many other things, the Waanyi people’s fight against the Century Mine in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the 1990s. Wright has said of her novel: ‘It is about Aboriginal sovereignty of mind. The last frontier we are fighting for is having control of our own imagination and how we define our future.’ And she wrote it in a way that ‘might encourage Aboriginal people to read and understand the possibilities of literature to explain who we are’.
So, writers of Australia with a burning desire to grapple in fiction with the issues of our day – which for me include climate change, the fact most of us live on stolen land, Indigenous–non-Indigenous relations, the wars we’re embroiled in, the plight of the dispossessed, oppressed and the voiceless (which for me includes animals and the planet itself), the privatisation and commodification of much of the world down to the very seeds we plant, the politics of food, racism, homophobia and (my own personal bête noir) patriarchal religions and cultures – send your stories to Overland and together we’ll explore the possibilities of fiction and politics in the 21st century.