Earlier this year I went to the launch of a literary journal in Melbourne during the writers festival. I went because the journal was publishing something of mine, and handing out prizes and money.
I also went because I had never been to any kind of literary launch or writers festival before and wanted to check out what it was like when badged afficionados of literature got together. I thought it could be fun.
I live in a small but notorious village in sub-tropical New South Wales and my preferred entertainment is sitting in a cafe writing, which is what I’m doing now. My interests are admittedly limited, so I figured I’d be getting out more.
So I made it to the launch. There were crowds of people stooging about for a long time in a room that would have made a good undertaker’s parlour for the corpse of a minor dictator. There was some free grog for drinkers and warm orange juice for non-drinkers, and bookshop reps selling the journal. Then the launch proper started, and numerous people spoke at length about literature. And that’s when things really went pear-shaped.
One way of putting it would be to say that I suddenly felt like I absolutely didn’t belong. As the speeches went on about the intrinsic value of literature to the world, I realised that I had no idea what anyone was talking about. It was quite distressing.
Another way of describing the experience would be that it was one of the most tedious, dispiriting and pointless events it has ever been my misfortune to endure. I wish to god I had stayed at home and never gotten on the plane. I can’t imagine what it must be like attending the Booker Prize. If there were any justice in the world, you’d think that the Booker shindig would involve a mass exodus of literati, consumed by despair and throwing themselves into the Thames like lemmings.
I’d very much like to believe that the world of professional literary activity – the book launches, the writers’ festivals, the agents shopping novels around, the review culture, the prizes and so on – gives us something to help us make sense of a reality where life is worth little, where the evil and cruel thrive, where children are crushed by Predator drones, women are treated like trashable objects, where atrocity and injustice are often feted and the planet is about to boil like a kettle. But I can’t because it doesn’t.
Recently I came across a list of the casualties of wars in the 1990s: two million killed in Afghanistan, 500,000 dead in Angola, 1.5 million in the Sudan, 800,00 in Rwanda, 250,000 dead in Bosnia, 200,000 in Guatemala, 150,000 dead in Liberia, 250,000 dead in Burundi. And so on.
War, children, might just be a shot away, but my guess would be that if you pored over all the fiction written in English during the 1990s you’d have very little inkling those events even occurred.
The central structure around which Western social orders, economics, and practices of enjoyment and pleasure are constructed is that of violence. Understandings and conversations about violence and its traumatic effects cut to the heart of those practices, and therefore the core of who we are and whatever it is we think we are doing. If we want to speak of the politics of self, of the politics of the West and our bizarre and destructive practices of enjoyment, it’s impossible to avoid an investigation of violence.
In her groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery: from domestic abuse to political terror, Judith Herman pointed out that all our understandings of trauma and violence have been born of radical mass political movements: the French anti-clerical revolutions of the nineteenth century, the anti-war movements of the twentieth, and the late-twentieth century rise of feminism. In between those movements there have been strange periods of amnesia. Herman, a psychiatrist, writes as a feminist, and might be the only trauma theorist I’ve ever heard of influenced by George Orwell, whose concept of ‘doublethink’ she links to the psychological concept of ‘dissociation’.
As Herman points out, in between the heightened revisitings brought on by catastrophic wars, trauma vanishes from professional and public discourse. Endemic violence becomes invisible.
Which brings us back to literature.
After the Melbourne lit launch I was weirdly disoriented. I felt like sitting on a park bench somewhere, drinking a bottle of vodka and writing in my notebook til my pen ran out of ink. But I stopped drinking a decade ago, and I had social obligations to fulfil that night, so it was a futile wish, and just as well.
When I finally got to bed, I berated myself for being so stupid as to believe that a writers’ festival and the launch of a literary journal could be meaningful. I was also starting to feel that I was going a bit nuts, which can happen when you have nutty experiences. In Grey Eminence, which is probably his best book, Aldous Huxley wrote:
All of us, I suppose, have woken up all of a sudden from the sleep of everyday living into momentary awareness of the nature of ourselves and our surroundings…suddenly to realise that one is sitting damned among the damned.
And then, in the tone of a man chilled to the heart he adds, ‘It’s most disquieting.’
I woke up in the middle of the night and gazing out of the hotel window at sleeping Melbourne, thought, this is completely fucked. What on earth do I think I’m doing when I’m writing? I’m just scribbling to myself in the dark. And for what? The privilege of being published in an esteemed mainstream literary journal? I haven’t received my complimentary issue of the journal yet, but if and when I do, I intend to dig a hole and bury it (probably out in the orchard near where I buried the dead chicken that the dog accidentally killed) and dance on its grave.
There is something really wrong with the way that literature in English is produced and the processes by which those products are sanctioned. It’s crooked and it’s a scam, and writers are complicit with it. Having published a few things and won a couple of things, you’d think I might be feeling good about myself. After all, that’s the recognition writers are supposed to strive for. But the Melbourne lit launch, a launch that someone who had been to many similar events told me was just your average launch, was so absolutely batshit weirdo crazy that, as the slow tedious evening wore on, the feeling grew that I was in a stateroom on a sinking ocean liner. It was as if we were all nibbling on canapes while outside the passengers in steerage were already looking for the lifeboats. And finding none. I kept sticking the equivalent of mental Post-Its on my mind: ‘Steve, this is ok. You’re tired and this is unfamiliar. It’s just a harmless, well-meaning literary launch.’
Actually it wasn’t. It was a sinister microcosm of the dead values and toxic ideas that construct and police literature. I looked into the heart of the bourgeoisie – and realised that it was me. I had become a sanctioned literary person. I’m not a Booker Prize winner or anything, but I’m compromised enough. Fiction is light, excitingly traumatic entertainment for the bourgeoisie.
I can’t see how we can go on like this, constructing literature as an elite activity, plugged into the marketing whims of transnational corporations and glossed with a veneer of aesthetic credibility and notions of ‘craft’ and literary excellence. A writer’s output is fed into a corporate neoliberal marketing hierarchy and comes out at the end with a nice cover and a price tag. That’s the way abbatoirs work. This is no way to produce dissent.
Still, I’ve been wondering about the literature of writers from Indigenous nations and violently colonised peoples who may sometimes write in English. Literature written in English produced by the colonised and the invaded could be itself a kind of radical re-colonising, a landing on the shores of the continent of English Literature, a continent fortified by the concrete bunkers of publishers, with trolling battalions of critics.
Literature of the colonised is always going to be unavoidably political, and the political has been something that literature has historically studiously avoided, despite the best efforts of writers like Edward Said. A political novel is considered to be Nineteen Eighty-Four. The corpus of contemporary literature in English, literature for which violence is something that happens out there if it happens at all, doesn’t consider itself to be political. Politics, the examination of violence, happens in other countries and other literatures.
Maybe the production of twentieth-century literature in English, dominated as it has been by English and American publishers, was something of a scam. Readers and writers are often people in love with the idea that literature is almost ontologically important.
It’s actually not that important at all. It’s people that are important and what people say about themselves and each other, and that can happen in a variety of ways. Fiction is not transcendent, it does not offer a moral compass, reading it does not make you a better person, and it does not inherently speak to the human condition. If you think it does, you may well be putting an awful lot of trust in people who think it’s really cool to win the Booker Prize.
Which, if I may say so, seems rather unwise.
In a post at New York Review of Books the US writer and academic Tim Parks made some very interesting observations about novels and about the somewhat elitist description of literature extolled by Jonathan Franzen in his well-broadcast comments about Twitter. Franzen’s comments made him sound like the only writer who would get a job in Plato’s Republic.
We are in thrall to the narrative of selves, says Parks, that do not really exist in the way we imagine, a fabrication in which most novel-writing connives. Parks is going to be one of the 2013 Booker Prize judges though, so perhaps he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying, but still it’s an opinion worth exploring, even if Booker Prize judgments are historically not.
Novels, as Parks points out, are not magically woven out of transcendental story-essence. Novelists have largely conspired with the idea that novels are terribly important, even essential to the continuance of Western civilization. As readers we have often gone along with that, partly because as we have grown up reading became so important to us, for all kinds of strange and sometimes unsavoury reasons. Fiction may well have made us feel real, and maybe those of us who are addicted readers are people whose neurosis is that we read a lot of books to fix ourselves.
Reading literature hasn’t traditionally been seen as a symptom of anything. These days I’m inclined to see almost anything as a symptom, but my life of incessant reading seems to look weirder the older I get. Maybe reading fiction just made my ordinary unhappiness acceptable to me and helped me collude with my avoidance of the violence deeply embedded in ordinary social life. Perhaps, as Parks seems to be saying, fiction just supported me in my idea of a self that has an essential nature, a kind of anodyne de-politicised self that Western culture has privileged, and privileges now even more than ever. And if it is misconceiving a solid independently existing apolitical self that makes us unhappy, perhaps novels just help us to keep talking about our unhappiness.
Maybe the novel has been integral to the advance of Western civilization. Perhaps literature has given the West’s violent imperial practices a gloss of respectability, a sheen of insight, and made us appear as though we really cared about the processes of living and the well-being of others, like a sociopathic BP executive who donates to charity and can hum along to ‘Voi che sapete’ when he’s at the opera.
Perhaps fiction writers have just been violent Western imperial culture’s spin doctors. Sure, rampant Western culture has given us Shakespeare, the refrigerator, the fountain-pen, the music of John Cage, the book, personal transport, the internet and peanut butter. But it also has to take responsibility for transcontinental industrial-scale genocide, global warming, mass irreversible species extinction, carpet bombing, the fetishisation of rape-culture, pesticides, and nuclear weapons. It’s not as if we can argue that the novel is one of the West’s saving graces: ‘Hey everyone, sorry about all the mass murder and ecological destruction and everything, but look, The Novel! And this one won the Booker!’
A novel is hardly ever an item of dissent. Fiction writers can be very compliant with the hypercapitalist machine, and its weird and destructive priorities.
What it would take to be a radical writer of fiction, someone no longer in thrall to the neoliberal narrative of selves, ready to confront the systemic violence of the West and literature’s amnesia, sceptical of the novel as a form of artistic enjoyment and uncooperative with a publisher’s corporate priorities, might be a question worth considering. If the production of literature in English as we have known it didn’t exist, we’d be obliged to invent something else, or at least do it very differently. Currently, in its corporate amnesiac rigidity, it is decomposing where it stands. It’s a dead parrot, it’s a zombified corpse with garish make-up supplied by the marketing branch of Literary Capitalism, and all the literary prizes and launches and festivals in the world won’t bring it back to life.