On banana-cream pies

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that fiction is so much hot air, and that fiction writers’ opposition to the Vietnam War proved this. ‘We dropped on our complacent society’, he said at a PEN meeting in the early 70s, ‘the literary equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. I will now report to you the power of such a bomb. It has the explosive force of a very large banana-cream pie – a pie two meters in diameter, twenty centimetres thick, and dropped from a height of ten meters or more’.

‘However’, he continued, ‘we have reason to suspect that we have poisoned the minds of thousands or perhaps millions of American young people. Our hope is that the poison will make them worse than useless in unjust wars’. I assume that a banana-cream pie might be something like our pavlova. But the statement still holds.

Well so it goes, Kurt and Hi ho. It didn’t pan out that way. No-one had their minds poisoned and the Vietnam War is starting to look like it was just a practice run for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still the idea of a work of fiction as a kind of poison that makes the reader into someone unable to function in a particular way is an intriguing one. What that fiction might contain to make us into people unable to pull a trigger and shoot a child, for example, or even make us into people who can remember that a child is a person, someone worthy of thought and of thoughts of their own, is worth discussion. Perhaps at a writer’s festival, or at 2am in the morning somewhere in some café of lost souls when your brain is too fucked with tiredness or too drugged or drunk to think about anything more useful.

I think I’m coming back to something I wrote in my first post for Overland, about the act of writing, and what it means to do such a thing in these unbelievable times. So perhaps my posts are starting to go in circles. Anyway, it seems to me to be a question that won’t go away.

I could make a long list of the highly praised novels I’ve started this year that I wanted to compost. And some of them have been. Many years ago, when I was living in a house crowded with people tripping over each other’s hearts and plotting improbable dates with destiny and so on, a friend of mine said ‘How come I can never find novels about the kind of people that I know or the things that I think about?’

In the same way I find myself thinking, Am I on Mars? Have I had an accident and woken up in 1973?

ComaThe sea appears to be turning to acid, there’s a hole in the sky as big as a continent, we’ve now got more species extinction since a meteorite the size of Paris hit the planet 65 million years ago, the solution to any international disagreement seems to be war and murder, western societies are awash with an epidemic of depression and mental illness and all we seem to be able to do in response is make more and more banana-cream pies.

I realised a couple of days ago looking at the books by the side of my bed that the books I have read in the past few years that have meant the most to me have almost all been non-fiction (with the happy exception of Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids); Bill Neidje’s Story About Feeling, Jacqueline Rose’s On Not Being Able to Sleep, Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside and Out, pretty much anything by Edward Said, Juliet Mitchell’s Madmen and Medusas, Gaston Bachelard’ s The Poetics of Reverie, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language and so forth. I quoted Michael Wood a few blogs ago, who said that we tell stories that are not true, because the stories that are true aren’t enough. But perhaps the stories that aren’t true aren’t enough now either, but are causing a kind of further panic as what we are pleased to call our imaginations disappear into the perplexity of our futures, pursued by the sinister spooks of the past.

To this end I have started reading non-fiction – and writing it to some extent – as though it were fiction. It’s a strategy that is working well for me I have to say, in a whole range of different ways, and it means I can inhabit that weird interior space we set aside for reading in an even more hallucinatory way. All kinds of elisions and bleeding and bizarre collisions between worlds can take place. For example, Freud finally makes sense to me because I read him as though I were reading his contemporaries Conan Doyle and HG Wells.

Anyway, last week I came across Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a kind of alternative history of World War II. Human Smoke is basically several hundred pages of catalogued entries, beginning in 1914, proceeding chronologically, and ending just after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. An entry can be just half a page, and each recounts a documented historical anecdote and then dates it. We get to see Churchill’s virulent anti-Semitism and racism, Roosevelt’s repeated refusal to allow the desperate Jewish refugees of Germany into the USA – there’s no room; they might be spies and Nazis – and so on. Human Smoke reads like a work of fantastic eerily topical fiction. It reminded me a little of Kurt Vonnegut – and I’d be surprised if Baker didn’t have some Vonnegut-esque cadences in mind when he was writing – and brought to mind, by chains of association, the books of WG Sebald.

Both Vonnegut and Sebald were concerned with war and cataclysm – Vonnegut also with climate change and ecological destruction and so forth – and about fiction as a kind of fact, and they both made fiction interesting for me – and even critical – at times when fiction seemed like the last thing in the world able to be of help in the disasters of living in which I found myself. And often was the last thing.

I’m guessing that Sebald and Vonnegut had both thought deeply about the very act of writing. Vonnegut’s graphing of the narratives of western literature meant more to me than any book of literary criticism I ever read.

Sebald was haunted by the reverberations of the Holocaust and the German experience of World War 2, and once wrote a book about the Allied carpet-bombing campaign, something that Vonnegut experienced at Dresden. I suspect they are both writers that may still be read a hundred years from now by anyone who wants to work out why the twentieth century was so fucked up and was such a horrific nightmare, a nightmare from which we have yet to awaken. Vonnegut and Sebald asked questions that might be roughly summarised as: What does it mean to write after Auschwitz, or after Dresden? Note, this is not the question, ‘How can I write a novel about the death-camps’, or ‘How can I write a novel about firebombing’, but a question about the very act of writing. Vonnegut and Sebald weren’t writing in the belief that they had answers. The questions they are writing through won’t go away, and are still not answered. And we now have questions of our own to deal with as well.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Hi Stephen. I felt a bit like this but not when I came back from Africa and had to make theatre for my job – it was like: what? can there be theatre after Africa? In the end, I realised I love theatre and it’s a most wonderful privilege and all the people I had met who were struggling so massively would do what I was doing rather than what they were doing in a flash – so I determined to love and value every minute of it. Maybe this is completely irrelevant: I feel a bit that way this evening. So all I have to offer is this, and it’s not even mine:
    Banana cream pie recipe

    * 3/4 cup white sugar
    * 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
    * 1/4 teaspoon salt
    * 2 cups milk
    * 3 egg yolks, beaten
    * 2 tablespoons butter
    * 1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
    * 1 (9 inch) pie crust, baked
    * 4 bananas, sliced


    1. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, flour, and salt. Add milk in gradually while stirring gently. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is bubbly. Keep stirring and cook for about 2 more minutes, and then remove from the burner.
    2. Stir a small quantity of the hot mixture into the beaten egg yolks, and immediately add egg yolk mixture to the rest of the hot mixture. Cook for 2 more minutes; remember to keep stirring. Remove the mixture from the stove, and add butter and vanilla. Stir until the whole thing has a smooth consistency.
    3. Slice bananas into the cooled baked pastry shell. Top with pudding mixture.
    4. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 12 to 15 minutes. Chill for an hour.

  2. But hurrah for the novel – is there any non-fiction, given that everything is subjective.

    And congrats on the Freud thing – that’s a biggie, and possibly the only way to read him.

  3. Thanks for the recipe Clare. Should I ever have a literary critic to visit, or should Barack Obama ever come to Nimbin (he’s been invited)I shall have the perfect welcoming gift.
    I’m not sure that everything’s subjective, but it’s amazing to me that we divided writing into fiction and non-fiction so neatly.
    After I’d written this piece I came across another quote by Vonnegut, in which eh said that a lit critic angrily trashing a novel was like someone putting on a full suit of armour and multiple weapons in order to attack a hot fudge sundae.
    And of course, we can live our lives in many ways after being exposed to how most of the world lives and dies.
    But how most of the world lives and dies makes so much of what we do redundant. It’s a happy thing to remember that.

  4. Hi Stephen. Thanks for the post.I always enjoy them. Andrew O’Hagan wrote on a similar theme in a 2007 review of DeLillo’s Falling Man http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/jun/28/racing-against-reality/
    O’Hagan explores the limits of literary fiction in troubled times in this long essay.

    I think I am right in saying (but someone please correct me if I am not) the average reader of literary fiction in Australia is female, 35+, middle class, white collar or self funded retiree. The market reflects this demographic on the shelves of bookstores and, by association, publishers look for writing that will satisfy it. In fact, I would like to see the demographics of Australian commissioning editors to compare with that of the readership but that’s another story.

    In 2009 the biggest selling Australian lit fiction titles were Tsiolkas’ The Slap and Winton’s Breath, hardly books that are grappling with the zeitgeist, though some would argue with me on that, I’m sure. The problem is not so much that lit fiction, as a genre,isn’t up to it.
    It’s just that:
    a) publishers don’t want it; and
    b)writers may therefore be less inclined to write it.

    I would like to see more Australian competitions and publishers taking risks with work that speaks directly and energetically to our times and which takes into its frame the socio-political as well as the personal and emotional.

    1. Yes, as far as I know, that’s pretty much the readership for literary fiction. It’s also, though, pretty much the readership for literary non-fiction — and, I suspect, even for serious journalism.
      That’s what makes talking about political writing today so difficult, since you have to confront a fundamental crisis — or at least, a broader shift in cultural tastes.
      In some ways, writing a political novel becomes similar to a discussion about writing a political novel. You can do it — of course you can — but it involves thinking about politics in a different way to how writers might have operated in an era in which the novel was the dominant form.
      Not sure I agree with what you say about Tsiolkas. The Slap seemed to me fundamentally about grappling with the zeitgest: it’s a prolonged elegy for political commitment, a novel about what defeat does to people.

  5. Thanks for the summary Boris. Very helpful. And nice to know you read the blog. I’ll chase up the O’Hagan essay. The genre of fiction is its writers though, and though I know very little of the Oz publishing industry I’m guessing that there’s a feedback loop which is constructed as you described; writers don’t write what publishers/editors don’t want. One of the recent posts of the Melbourne EWF (can’t remember which one) described a session with publishers I think, attended by writing hopefuls wanting some tips on how to get published. They were reassured by said publishers that good writing will always win out. This is a ludicrous and patronising statement I think, and any aspiring fiction writer who buys it would be very naive.
    No argument from me on Tsiolkas and Winton.
    And I can’t see any way that any publisher or competition judge has any reason to take risks of any kind. It might spoil the brand.
    Still there’s lots of interesting non-fiction around. I have a pile of Henry Reynolds waiting for me when the library truck comes to town. My reading of non-F continues to increase compared to my reading of F which more and more returns to books I have read many times before.

  6. Boris: re the O’Hagan piece. The last line re; the falling man, Jonathan Briley is very relevant I think:
    “is currently awaiting a writer sufficiently uncoerced by the politics of art to tell his story.”

    BTW, I still have in mind your comment on a blog of mine you quoted me saying: “We have to know what we have assented to, and the machine of neo-liberal catastrophe capitalism is brilliant at having us assent to things we don’t even know we have assented to. This is the interstice where ruptures are possible.”

    and then said:

    “This point is deserving of an essay. Why don’t you write one?”

    Still on my to-do list, if I don’t get sick of blogging before.

  7. Thanks for this post Stephen. The question to me sometimes feels like how do you talk or write after knowing the ‘bombs have dropped’. Even trying to have a conversation that takes you some way to some kind of understanding of the madness leaves everyone at the dinner table looking like they have been slapped. Perhaps its the timing, or folk are in shock or sadness or tired and just want to relax and talk about The Slap and breathe in the safe air and hope.

  8. I think this is exactly one of the questions that preoccupy me, Sharon. I sort of wandered around it in my last blog a couple of weeks ago, and it’s on my mind every day. It’s a very interesting problem, living knowing that the bombs have dropped. What’s the most useful thing to do in that situation? What conversations are possible? How can one think and feel and love and all that other stuff and build a mundane life as a meaningful structure of resistance etc etc? I don’t have any answers, except those I have made important for myself and dictate how I’ll run out the rest of today, but the questions are critical.

  9. Hey all. I saw the Banksy movie last night and loved it – it and ‘It might get loud’ are two of my favourite films of the last little while, so maybe there’s something in this non-fiction business … dilettante perhaps but tonight, I’m tired enough to be okay with that.

  10. Hi folks. I have to make a post just to prove (to myself? to others?) that I exist (at least as a playful entity) even if it is Mars.
    I am happy that Snufkin is reading non-fiction because we should by now have long ago buried the bourgeois genre known as the novel. Boo for the novel. The novel can go to hell, though I certainly wouldn’t burn those ones already written.
    So I would ask: Given something like deconstructive interpretations, is there is anything that is not non-fiction? This is the rock that Samuel Johnson kicked when he said of Berkley’s subjective idealism \I refute it thus\.
    So I (as we all did?) followed Clare’s link to Dickens’ letter to Richard Greene appealing for help on behalf of Johnsons’s aging and destitute god-daughter. Its a wonderful presentation, very moving (Mozart’s Requiem is the music). Unfortunately its a sales pitch because you can buy the letter for a mere $11.5K. Back on Mars again.
    Dickens wrote the letter from his Tavistock London residence. Tavistock is an interesting proper name which leads me to psychology and Winnicott.
    It was Winnicott who suggested paradoxically that we both create the world and find it. Our real selves live in a playful world between fiction and non-fiction and that place is our home. Conan Doyle was hugely playful, HG Wells probably not and Freud…leaves me speechless. He was for a reality which we are truly up against. Yet he created these exquisite case histories and he is the darling of critical theorists.
    The problem for me perhaps is other people’s subjectivities. More often than not its that which we come up against rather than a non-fictional world. I know I’m on earth but other people’s subjectivities make it feel like Mars. Perhaps I need to be more Winnicottian in my approach to novels and to other people in general. I don’t want to up against people I happen to disagree with (earth population minus one).
    So in the interests of striking common ground (call me a humanist) I go Boo to the person who committed such a cowardly and violent assault on Mr Gates.

    1. “It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space–that intimate relationships and creativity occur.” (from “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” 1951)D.W. Winnicott.

      I love the internet!
      (No cut here, on the letter scam, by the way …)

      1. and pooh to the boo of the novel, pooh pooh to your boo … give me my ‘bourgeois genre known as the novel’ … I’m going to bed with one right now!

      2. Winnicott was, and is, a very, very interesting writer and thinker. Too little known. His idea of transitional space I really love. And he did some amazing work with children too.
        By all means read novels Clare. I am currently reading the Pickwick Papers – at the recommendation of Fernando Pessoa. It tastes exactly like a banana cream pie.

  11. Gus
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I enjoyed the Gates cream-pie incident for many reasons, but one being that the entarteur who carried out the dastardly deed, Georges le Gloupier, knew it was just a cream-pie. Whereas when I write my great novel I may be under the impression that it is really something of substance.
    You are right about Winnicott I think. Like those other forgotten englishmen of the sixties, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, he had more wit and irony and insight than a whole library of earnest novelists. Yes, we both find the world and create it and it is not every really clear which we are doing at any given moment. So yes, boo to the novel for appearing to make stories purely imaginary.
    I compared Freud to Wells and Conan Doyle, not to trivialise Freud, but to illustrate that Freud was uncovering ideas that seemed really mad and that must have seemed unbelievable to him too – the idea that we constantly reveal ourselves without knowing that we do, that we speak to ourselves in dreams, that we dream when we are awake, that the things we trivialise about ourselves are often the most significant and vice versa and so on and so on. Also Freud was a detective. Like Holmes he waited in his rooms (Holmes with his violin and cocaine, Freud with his Egyptian artefacts and cigars) and deduced amazing things from things others couldn’t see. And Freud wrote science-fiction. Literally. Science that was fiction.
    If other’s subjectivities make us feel like we are on Mars, then perhaps we are learning to do what Winnicott’s contemporary Wilfrid Bion learned to do: listen to others as though listening to an account of a dream.

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