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A defence of print

Last century, I used to write letters to my friends, long unwittingly revealing perorations usually composed over several weeks. They contained late-night ruminations, drunken soliloquies, jokes, drawings, descriptions of domestic activities, music, books, and momentary events drawn out and offered up for reflection. It was like blogging to one person.

Now, I don’t write letters to anyone, not least because no-one would write back and would be puzzled why I didn’t use email. And I have the feeling that if the friends I’ve made since those days suddenly got a twenty-page letter from me yattering on about my life and cursing fate and the deranged they would regard it as a very odd occurrence, as though they’d been bailed up by someone in the throes of a psychotic episode muttering distressingly about all the things they can see and hear. Writing in print has become a marginalised practice.

In the print issue of Overland 211, editor Jeff Sparrow wrote a brief defence of print journals:

Print remains the preferred format for most poets and creative writers in Australia. That may, of course, change but for the time being most authors want a physical copy of their work.

Similarly, many people still like to read (in particular) long essays, literary fiction and poetry on paper, away from the distractions of their iPad.

Finally, the rhythms of quarterly print production allow a more intensive editorial interaction with writers, as the quality of the pieces in this edition reveal.

Poets and other writers wanting a hard copy of their work in journal form probably isn’t much of a reason to put vast energy into one. And while it’s possible that some writers crave intensive literary interaction with editors, the history of literature has also sometimes been writers wishing editors would go away and stop asking, ‘What are you trying to say?’ – easily the most infuriating editorial question of all time. (Answer: ‘I’m trying to say what I’ve said.’) Editorial intervention is no guarantee of interesting work and is certainly not essential to the production of literature.

But if literary journals in print aren’t just vanity projects for tiny groups of writers or vehicles for editors to talk to writers about how to do things better, what’s the point of them?

Maybe we need to look more closely at the experience of reading and of writing, and of time, reverie and memory. Perhaps a print journal can be radically disruptive in the way that iPads aren’t and Jeff is right on his second point. If he is, why would people prefer to read away from the ‘distractions of their iPad’?

I’ve tried to look at this in different ways, weirded out as I am by the attempts of the goons at NSA and GCHQ to put everyone under permanent surveillance, and by bizarre and scary inventions like Google Glass and what that means for how we inhabit psychic and physical space. In the end I began to think about what it is that makes a phenomenal world of radical wellbeing and how reading non-interactive, un-Twittered, non-Facebooked, de-iPadded print can create that.

I’m not sure there’s a really expressive term for the non-digital world. ‘Analogue’ doesn’t cut it and is too binary, while ‘real’ is too presumptuous. ‘Phenomenal’ comes close I suppose. But it’s still an approximation of the world, a world that I think the late Kakadu man of Law Bill Neidjie was pointing to in Story about Feeling when he said:

That star e working there…see?
E working. I can see.
Some of them small, you can’t hardly see.
Always at night, if you lie down…
look careful…e working…see?
When you sleep…blood e pumping.

So you look…e go pink, e come white.
See im work? E work.
In the night you dream, lay down,
that star e working for you.
Tree…grass.

The book or the print journal can carry with them the taste of the following experiences: memory, corporeality, reverie, pleasure and subversion. Another way to look at it is that chronic online connectivity splinters memory and attentiveness, detaches us from the world of the corporeal body, obliterates the capacity for reverie, reifies and fragments pleasure, and connects it irrevocably to the anxious creation of tech-based identity, making the common and unexceptional subversive activity of a private life problematic.

If we flip these ideas over again, they tell us where the Facebooked Googlenet is taking us: to an increasingly amnesiac, non-corporeal, undreaming, anxious compliance. And perhaps they also tell us where what is sometimes called ‘creative writing’ might go in radicalising memory, reverie and subversion while also being conscious of its own scales of pleasure.

I’m not advocating a neo-Luddite solitude or a sentimental return to a world unplugged – and I think I’m a zillion miles away from Jonathan Franzen’s recent bizarre rant in the Guardian with its alarming get-this-man-to-therapy moments. But in thinking on my own use of the internet and connectivity, I became increasingly confronted with the absence of the things they have destroyed or elided without my noticing.

One of those things was my ability to read a printed unconnected page. Which brings me back to literary journals.

I can’t be bothered addressing the criticisms of Australian literary journals made in Robyn Annear’s lazy post at some site called The Monthly that Alec Patric referenced recently at Overland. There are a number of criticisms to be made of Australian literary journals, but Annear doesn’t make them.

Still, while I more or less support the intent of Patric’s piece, I can’t really get enthused by his assertion that ‘Literature … is an act of faith, even for the most lowly’. I get nervous when writers start using a religious vocabulary to speak of literature (as someone did a while back at Southerly, asserting that writing prose induced a ‘state of grace’). Neither do I even come close to understanding another statement about that lowly faith, which is ‘that ordinary lives have meaning and that they might reach for art’.

‘Retch’ for art might be more like it. Like ‘faith’, upchucking ‘art’ into a conversation about literature begs more questions than it answers.

I find reading many Oz lit journals an often discouraging experience. I feel as though they are part of a world I shouldn’t have access to, a world of special, refined and poeticised feelings, and I struggle to hear voices from my actual or imaginary life, the voices of people I know. Neither fey or sentimentalised, they are the voices of the abused and the violated – those in chronic pain, the rural poor, the urban poor, voices from criminalised Aboriginal communities, voices from the lived experience of mental illness, voices of the despised masses of people that twenty-first-century political life increasingly wants to demonise.

But I think that the Overland project (online journal and print journal joined unequally at the hip like a pissed-off Janus with a doubled-schizoid personality) is an off-kilter exception. Overland has seriously embraced an outspoken politicised online identity while reinventing its print identity. I suspect as time goes by, this will look like an increasingly prescient move.

It seems to me that Overland is always morphing (three major website makeovers in three years) and that this is a good thing: a sign of an inner instability, an uneasiness about their project that Overland is brave enough to acknowledge. Overland stands out for me because it comes to messy grips with the political and there’s always the chance you’ll come across a marginalised voice instead of another piece of handcrafted pathos by a graduate of a creative writing school.

I don’t want to make this a puff piece. Overland can occasionally demonstrate some exasperating characteristics, but if you didn’t sometimes rub your own writers up the wrong way you wouldn’t be doing your job. Besides when everyone is in agreement about how wonderful things are, the most obvious question to ask is where the dissent is and who is being left out. And I guess those characteristics are an expression of Overland’s obligation to engage with the urban literati and connect with a whole range of bizarre ideas manifested by an increasingly neoliberalised production of literature. That looks like a difficult space for Overland to occupy and I don’t envy them.

Overland writers, however, aren’t required to meet that obligation. So I can say clearly that I think: writers festivals are greasy dismal marketing enterprises for exalting publishers; the idea of the ‘emerging’ writer is a stupid and patronising concept guaranteed to preserve the status quo and keep the marginalised in line; prize-winning is about luck and politics and unspoken assumptions of the literary and has sweet FA to do with ‘talent’; the practice of judging literature in competitions makes me want to throw up; if you haven’t got fiction or poetry by a ton of Aboriginal writers on your shelves you suck as a reader.

And when I say that the print journal can furiously concern itself with memory, corporeality, reverie, pleasure and subversion, I’m also saying that the obliteration of memory is the disease of white Australian life, mortality is very often about the passage and inscription of blood and vomit and tears, thinking can get you imprisoned, pleasure is not about sex or consumption but about learning to imagine the interior states of others, and subversion is the only option available now for anyone who has a smidgen of concern for anyone other than themselves.

What would you want to read if the planet were about to catch fire and was populated by sociopathic powerfreaks intent on crushing the lowly just for fun, everyone was under surveillance all the time and freedom was equated with the ability to drop a Hellfire on those who caught your paranoid eye, and violent misogynistic narcissism was a celebrated virtue?

I’m stuffed if I’d want to read some cookie-loaded prize-winning shite downloaded from the panoptic crypto-fascist headquarters of Amazon … but I might just need to get my hands on something in print, something that can’t be tracked, that can be passed on and on, something unpolished that really fucks with my mind and speaks of the stifling of political life, of the silencing of some of those marginal voices, and the mandating of that by mutant, vultured, panopticised supercapitalism. I want my literary journals to be on fire like molotovs, not launched with wine and cheese and gossip. I want more Overlands and less fawning at the altar of Big Lit.

A literary journal can be something that interrogates the idea of literary journals, or that gives a bored ‘fuck you’ to Big Lit and seeks out messy, unheard, marginal, lucid and angry writers afflicted with bitter melancholia who have something to say and know a little about irony and the making of jokes. This is not the same as seeking the ‘emerging’ who can be too keen to slither forth into the fun-filled wonderland of the published and tell their emerging siblings how to copy them.

The potential that literary journals could shift toward realising is embedded in their marginality. Marginality is not the twin of irrelevance. Literary journals flirt with irrelevance (most often by seeking ‘relevance’) when they could be embracing their marginality.

‘All the poets they studied rules of verse,’ said Lou Reed in Sweet Jane. ‘And those ladies they rolled their eyes.’ The phenomenon of literature skates on the precipice of being ridiculously irrelevant, and that’s not a bad thing. It can be useful to know that literature is a marginal event barely clinging to life, not a transcendent web of resurgent meaning covering the world.

It’s the marginalised and disenfranchised who have always made the most radical and transformative music because they have nothing to lose. And in fact, in this weird and frightening age, every one of us is on the precipice of losing pretty much the whole shebang. But to be honest, when I read many contemporary Oz lit journals I sometimes feel as though I’m encountering a stream of music in a parallel universe where the blues and punk never happened.

The conditions under which writers now have to write are so extraordinary they defy belief: I can’t understand how anyone can think that literature has a utopian future. We seem to be out of time and nearly out of options. I have no idea how we might write literature that has no future, but thinking of literature as a liminal, flawed politics of failure might help. A future of endless triumphal Bookers looks to me like a Dante-esque nightmare, because to keep that happening we’ll have to continue to live in the same fractured world of violent imperial disaster capitalism that we do now.

‘The writing that one cannot write,’ said the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, referencing Robert Walser, ‘is also writing.’ It is becoming increasingly necessary, in this traumatised world, to write of the unspeakable. There is both the coded trauma of the unspeakable – of the trauma perpetuated by the continued attempts to obliterate Aboriginal culture for example – and the criminalising of dissent and difference and the silencing of critical perspectives.

Every fiction writer writes around the thing they will never say. That’s what fiction writers do. The fully determined work of fiction doesn’t exist. Fiction could become a practice for people who don’t know how to speak truthfully, learning to speak of the unspeakable. That’s the only kind of literature that I think is viable now and where the corporeal literary journal might situate itself.

Old overlandsIn a box on a shelf in a secondhand bookshop just around the corner from my workplace are a few ancient Overlands. They contain the weirdest shit, and the pages are foxing like crazy but they can still sometimes do a number on the person who reads them. It’s interesting when you read old print journals how enlivened you can become when you find something that a writer you’ve never heard of said forty years ago. It’s like finding a forgotten treasure in a room full of old crap.

A few weeks ago at my workplace we were cleaning out some ancient desks that hadn’t been touched in several years. One of my colleagues found a little baggie full of small calibre bullets at the back of a drawer crammed with detritus. My first response, not unreasonably, was ‘You are fucking kidding me!’ Finding something that messes with your mind by some now dead or decrepit writer in an ancient literary journal is like that.

To plunge into a reading of that unbelievable thing is even more worthwhile because the NSA or Five Eyes can’t see you doing it, and although it may soon be possible for your games console to monitor you at home for thoughtcrime, in the phenomenal non-digital world you can think what you like if you can find someone to help you to do it. And sometimes those people are in print.

It’s amazing how much ludicrous schlock you find in old lit journals too, but that’s just a salutary lesson in how literature gets policed, and how literary journals have colluded in policing it. That’s the slippery place for Overland, and I think that in these strange times where a neoliberal narcissism in literature is both valorised and elided in the name of art, I’d rather be here at Overland arguing about it and making the politics explicit than colluding with it elsewhere in the name of art. That’s why Overland is worth my time.

Stephen Wright lives in Nimbin on a land-sharing community. He has won some things (2009 Eureka Street Prize, 2013 Nature Conservancy Prize), been shortlisted for others (2012 Creative NonFiction Prize, 2014 Calibre Prize) and was once runner-up for a poetry prize he’s forgotten the name of.

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  1. when I read many contemporary Oz lit journals I sometimes feel as though I’m encountering a stream of music in a parallel universe where the blues and punk never happened

    Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, a must read slim volume of syncopated literary ooze – at least I found it so

  2. Odd, perhaps, but the best description of Bolden jazz I could come up with on the spot. It’s a bit like you writing “Last century I used to write letters to my friends”, letters that oozed with a whole lot of stuff, and me seeing a literary genre hit the dust and thinking it odd to think that we’re older than the century, and then projecting in a syncopated way other literary genres rising from the same dust, “The Collected Emails of Stephen Wright” and “The Collected Tweets of Jeff Sparrow” etc.

  3. Letters may have hit the dust, but the other usual suspects, novels and short stories thrive in ever more conservative forms.

    • True and it brings me no joy to write that the thriving industry of contemporary novels and short stories mostly brings me no joy due to a conservatism of both form and content. So I reread what I have already reread. Forget surgery, a bomb is the only answer.

  4. Ah yes, eloquently and passionately recorded. The unwritten ‘rules’ of publishing are sniffed at here although there are others.

    If you are over the age of 35 you are unlikely to be of much interest to publishers who want what they call ‘longevity’ based on the ludicrous belief that one good book, sorry, one saleable book, out of someone young, means more. So the more years the more books, the more money.

    You might get ten years added onto that if you are good looking and there is somewhere between 10- 20 years you can add if you are a member of some disaffected and suffering minority: religious, ethnic, racial, physical – health issues, mental and physical – or something which makes you politically correct and more marketable.

    None of which has anything to do with literary quality, the art of writing, the magic and wonder of the word, or in fact, anything worth reading.

    The focus, sadly, for this day and age is ‘what can I sell and how much money can I make and for how long?’ as opposed to, what is worth reading and what can stir the heart, mind and soul of human beings at this point in time and into the future?

    And yes, I did not begin my creative writing until I was 40 and fit none of the other criteria so remain unpublished, well, largely – a career in journalism and a goodly smattering of poetry in lit. mags and the odd piece of art work and short story – but defiantly stubborn and committed to my goal of writing as I write and to hell with the rest.

  5. I think that in critiquing publishing cultures it’s easy to be sidetracked by some kind of resentment or grievance. I personally look at Oz lit journals and see very little there of the writing I think is sustainable or interesting, and most of it looks politically naive too. But I don’t feel excluded by it because it’s not something I want to be included by. I think Oz lit cultures are problematic and highly exclusive and so forth, but to be more inclusive and politically intuitive they’d have to radically change. The radical change I’d be intrigued by, but not being included in current strictures. When I see the houses of the rich, I don’t want to live in them. I want to see them pulled down.
    Underlying any of the publishing preferences for marketable characteristics (conventionally attractive people are often heavily promoted for example) is the idea of an ‘audience’ an idea that is infrequently challenged. The Australian writer Eve Langley speaks in one of her novels (‘White Topee’ from memory) of writing as a ‘practice.’ This is an interesting notion I think and could do with a lot of thought and discussion.
    On emails and letters, I don’t believe the content is the same. My own belief is that the form shapes and changes the content. Few of us would mull over emails for several weeks, adding bits and pieces and so on. And the temptation with digital documents is to make them seem more coherent than they are, via cutting and pasting and so on, something the letter doesn’t encourage.

    • Yes, in general I agree although not about pulling down the houses of the rich – not the beautiful ones anyway. Much of the world’s wonderful history has been captured by the constructions or collections of the rich – however flawed the source of their wealth may have been or may be.

      I have spent many years living overseas, mainly Third World, and it is only in more recent times where online submissions have become increasingly available that I have been able to submit much. It is early days but so far, my ‘success’ rate has been vastly greater internationally than in Australia. I am not yet sure what that means but you may have touched upon some of the why’s and wherefores here.

      To my mind writing is both craft and art, but then are not all forms of creative expression? I like the thought of it as a practice as well for it requires dedication and determination.

      We can agree to disagree on emails as letters. To my mind it falls somewhat into the category of hand-written as opposed to typed. I know that writing by hand accesses different parts of the brain, but, as a touch typist of long-standing with many years in journalism, I also know that typing suits how I think, feel and write.

      My emails are long and considered and the really important ones can take weeks of reflection and editing.

      And if cutting and pasting is involved then it is not a letter but a debate – letters are personal and sourced in psyche, soul and spirit. The only ‘cutting and pasting’ comes in a metaphysical sense.

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