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A response to harvest

My curiosity piqued by a question beneath a review on our blog of the latest harvest, I hurried home to read its editorial. And read its editorial I did – with a burgeoning sense of unease.

The editorial responded to Ted Genoways’ article in Mother Jones earlier this year, ‘The death of fiction?’ Genoways argued that many factors contributed to the demise of the literary journal, and literature, but that a major cause was the preponderance of writing courses manufacturing writers who write more than they read and care little for the outside world:

At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

In response, the harvest editorial reasoned that ‘In a world where 12 million people can march on London to protest a war to no effect,’ a world of ‘instantaneous access to knowledge, science, media and porn,’ that writers ‘know both too much and too little’ to be able to ‘act or care sufficiently’, or to write the external world – and that readers (and Genoways) should learn to appreciate their ‘navel-gazing’:

And to dear Ted, we are the wrecked and lovely world. It’s there in our writing if you can bring yourself to read it, and while it may not be ‘sterling’ enough for you, it’s as real as the Iraq war, and often as heartbreaking.

Now these are complex questions, ones that journals or writers are yet to resolve in this atomised, market-driven climate; they are questions that Overland routinely grapples with, questions intrinsically connected to the cultural value of literature. Yet it is both ahistorical and apolitical to suggest that politics – and all the ambiguities and complexities involved in power relations in society – is not central to literature. Politics and literature have always been entwined, but literature used to be perceived through the lens of ‘high culture’; increasing commodification, depoliticisation and literacy have seen its significance change.

It is the role of literary journals and writers to stand for something, as Genoways argues in this manifesto [of sorts] for the Virginia Quarterly Review; I suspect one would find similar manifestoes – emphasising the relationship between politics and culture – for McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, Creative nonfiction and so on. The fact that we are slow to come to our manifestoes in Australia is more to do with our political comprehension – a confusion as to what ‘politics’ actually means, or, indeed, what it is to write politically.

When Genoways wrote of navel-gazing, he meant the gaze infatuated with its own, isolated existence, its loneliness, its forlornness, its lovelessness. He’s talking about the gaze that assumes colourless homogeneity and sameness of experience, a gaze that turns inwards when faced with decade-long wars or policies that lock-up traumatised people seeking asylum in a building resembling a concentration camp.

Genoways argued writers should be looking at ways to engage with the world, because what is the point of writing yet another poem about our lonely, loveless existence?

We should be encouraged to write and publish those diversity of voices in society that reflect the diversity actually existing in our society, the non-dominant perspective, rather than only those who have the ability, through privilege, to write. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but harvest’s thesis argued for the elimination of difference.

We do not live in a world of readers desensitised by ‘grief porn’ – I’m not even certain what that means. Does it allude to ‘Collateral murder’, the WikiLeaks video? In this time of mass education, media and information at out fingertips, do we not have a moral obligation to engage with these atrocities and expose the actualities of never-ending war, and what this war – not the clinical, sanitised version – honestly involves?

Yes, we writers are this ‘wrecked and lovely world,’ because who hasn’t suffered at the state of the world? But our writing is not ‘as real as the Iraq war, and often as heartbreaking,’ because we do not write the Iraq war.

Yes, our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them. If we want literature to matter to this epoch, then we need a literature that engages with the questions of this time.

At Overland we do think writers should be talking about wars, and that audiences want to read about them. We do think that publishing – that Australia – ignores its Indigenous writers, its refugee writers, its writers of difference, but we intend to find them.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jacinda Woodhead is the editor of Overland. She recently submitted her PhD research that examined abortion politics in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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Comments

  1. Doubtless this question has come up for most journals. If there’s anyone from other lit mags reading, it would be interesting to hear their response.

  2. Hooray Jacinda! Well said.

    But chance I wrote down this morning Toni Morrison’s declaration that ‘I don’t believe any real artists have ever been non-political. They may have been insensitive to this particular plight or insensitive to that, but they were political, because that’s what an artist is – a politician.’

    While I’d be reluctant to use the words ‘artist’ and ‘politician’ synonymously I do think that all the best art is inherently political, and that includes so-called ‘high culture’. One of the highest of high culture modernist novels, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, is fiercely political. It’s about Ireland and dispossession and having to use a coloniser’s language (English) in just the same way as Alexis Wright’s brilliant and equally passionately political ‘Carpentaria’ is about Australia, indigenous dispossession and writing in the coloniser’s language.

    I think there is political writing in contemporary Australia – Christos Tsiolkas writes very deliberately with political intent, as does Wright – and I think readers crave it, actually.

    And in answer to your question: yes, I think we do have ‘a moral obligation to engage with these atrocities and expose the actualities of never-ending war’. And not just war, but the more insidious atrocities wreaked daily by corporate capitalism, colonialism, all oppression. I really like this from Gandhi:

    ‘An armed conflict between nations horrifies us. But the economic war is no better than an armed conflict. This is like a surgical operation. An economic war is prolonged torture … The movement against war is sound. I pray for its success. But I cannot help the gnawing fear that the movement will fail if it does not touch the root of all evil – human greed.’

    Bring on the Overland manifesto!

  3. I thought it interesting that in that same issue, Harvest chose to interview Tara June Winch, a young indigenous writer who has just finished a mentorship with Wole Soyinka, in intensely polictical writer/activist/nobel laureate whose writing and work does exactly what Genoways advocates.

    In their previous issue 4, Harvest magazine elected to publish Railton Road, perhaps the most controversial/overtly political piece of prose I’ve written, which opens around 1969 in the Black Panther squats of Brixton and finds dome afroed, muscle T-d Black Panther ‘revolutionary’ Sonny Gray stalking and collaring a young black woman who is known locally to have taken up with a white man.

    I’ve performed twice for the Harvest audience at launches, and loved it – I’ve found them one of the most engaged, and hungry crowds yet. Without fail, there are always people wanting to talk afterwards, mostly about political writing, and the politics of my (or their own) writing.

    So the editorial, for me, was also a bit of a surprise.

  4. Writers and all artists need to be engaged with the world, and in that way can engage more people. Although i think the inner world is important and a valid arena for poetic engagement, any artist who deliberately ignores the world outside and the huge cataclysmic events that are happening, is ignoring the true point of being an artist. That said I don’t think its helpful for any artist to be solely or too aggressively political, because it alientates people.

  5. I’m sure the Genoways piece got up the noses of many a writing course graduate and teacher wherever it was read. Perhaps the harvest editorial, which I haven’t seen, is a defensive response to his jibe. I tend to agree with him. The institutionalisation of writing, of anything for that matter, can deaden the mojo. Whenever the oppositional voice is incorporated into bureaucratic meta structures I think there is a risk of a soporific kind of political relativism.

    Australian fiction tends to be anaemic when it comes to political engagement and I think that reflects the timid publishing culture as much as it does the priorities of most writers. As a writer of fiction which tends to foreground the political, I’ve almost lost interest in publishing here, even though most of my work is set in Australia. It’s a very important issue which deserves greater attention. As usual, Jack’s on the trail.

  6. It’s naive to suggest that professional writing courses are responsible for mediocrity. Long before institutionalised literature there was both conformity and blandness. That lack of engagement with wider issues, the interminable navel gazing we despise, isn’t simply apathy or weak willed hedonism.

    The crisis that looms on the writer’s horizon is both medieval in its history, and overwhelming in its immediacy. Solutions to the world’s troubles have continually been sought and our generation’s successes or failures won’t be measured until we all move out of the way for the next.

    We want political writing, but readers don’t want an avalanche of catastrophe. So solutions are sought. And that’s easy to complain about, and not so easy to deliver.

    It can all be resolved with any single Issue. If we’re talking racism, then breaking through that particular barrier leads to global harmony, because if we can’t separate ourselves on the basis of skin, on faith, on tribal patriotism, then we can’t help but move forward into global unity. No more Us and Them. Those that fight against racism are in for a long battle. These wars have been raging since the caves.

    Environmentalism leads to the same solutions of global responsibility and unity. Feminism, if it could genuinely overturn patriarchal fear and domination culture and the hierarchical survival of the fittest jungle instinct, would lead us to a broader balance of human attributes, and ultimately, true and lasting Community.

    The pure political solution, Communism, or my preference, Anarchy, are organisational philosophies that require degrees of both personal and social evolution. The first is difficult enough, yet upon the writer we place the additional weight of the species, history, the planet, basically everything.

    I love writers that make this their goal. I admire every single one of them, those that deal with rejection and the challenges of basic survival as writers, yet insist on returning to the blank page daily, to search their personal faith and sift through every inkling and vision for understanding and meaning. I adore these writers.

    The spectators that complain from the sidelines that their work could be done with more dedication or enthusiasm, that it’s too little and too late, I find irritating.

  7. This seems to me like (yet another) regurgitation of the argument between Lukacs (Overland) and Adorno (Harvest). Are there really no other positions available, or are we simply going to rehearse this debate forever?

  8. OL’s probably closer to Trotsky than Lukacs — and that’s actually a position that wasn’t in the original debate. In any case, don’t you think that the problem is precisely that the argument’s not rehearsed anymore? It seems to me that there’s very little discussion in the small press scene as to what exactly we’re trying to achieve. Which makes it difficult to transcend anything, IMO.

  9. I agree that there isn’t much debate about the ‘mission’ of the small press, but I think that’s because most small publishers are expending so much energy just trying to keep their head above water. I suspect most small presses are coming from a social democratic paradigm that’s overtly political only in the sense of supporting diversity and independence in the media (which strikes me as both worthy and hard to achieve).

    I’m more nervous about theorising these issues in relation to diagnoses regarding the current ‘state’ of literature (as dead/dying, flourishing, hiding, too local, not local enough, too global, not global enough, too experimental, too conservative etc.), which often reflect a particular prescriptive notion of what fiction should be (Paul Mann’s book ‘The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde’ (while pretentious) is pretty good on the pernicious logic of these kinds of debates).

    I think these kinds of polemics often miss new possibilities for literature — and as an example, I’d cite Andrew McCann’s OL article on Roberto Bolano, and how his books have managed to be simultaneously experimental and social realist, aestheticist and political.

    • Hi Emmett,
      Thanks for the response. I should stress, too, that we’re not trying to be ‘holier than thou’ about this: without wanting to speak for Jacinda, this argument is in some ways a self-criticism as much as anything, in that we haven’t been nearly clear enough as to what we’re trying to do.
      When you say that most small presses don’t debate their rationale because they’re expending too much energy trying to keep their head above water, well, I get that (God knows we’re in the same boat) but in some ways it’s precisely the point. That is, in this era, the issues that we’re all grappling with directly relate to particular political and social questions, not just because we’re obviously all impacted by policy decisions on funding and so on but because the digital revolution has raised all sort of immediate questions about the structure of the industry. I tried to articulate this (in a slightly incoherent fashion — it was written very quickly) piece for New Matilda.
      More generally, in terms of fiction itself, I’m not for taking a narrowly prescriptive stance. But in some ways you are more likely to end up with a narrow range of possibilities if you don’t pursue explicit political debates, since without some attempt to ask what we’re doing and why, we’re much more likely simply to fetishise a narrow view of craft (like so many creative writing classes do: every novel must show not tell). So I’m for the right of different approaches to clash — but I want them to clash, not simply muddle along together, because it’s through that process of clashing that productive idea emerge. How refreshing would it be, for instance, if the stoushes in Australian literature were not stupid fights over personalities or petty jealousies but were driven by actual differences about what kind of novel should be written in the year 2010? Would that not be good for novelists but also for readers?
      I liked the McCann piece, too. But it’s not coincidental (as we say!) that Bolano emerged from a Trotskyist background, something that seems to have shaped both his politics and his aesthetics.

      • I agree with the vast majority of what you said (and, yes, I would prefer those kinds of debates!). I guess, my nervousness about this argument is about how it relates to the discourse around social/political content and the novel from earlier in the decade (particularly in the US and UK) — I’m thinking here of essays by Jonathan Franzen (the ‘Mr Difficult’ on William Gaddis), Dale Peck (the infamous review of Rick Moody’s ‘Black Veil’) and James Wood, which attacked ‘experimental’ fiction in the attempt to re-assert an antiquated idea of the 19th Century ‘social’ novel. I think it’s important to distinguish the OL idea from this populist, conservative line of argument that still has a great deal of purchase in mainstream media arguments about fiction.

      • I dream of a day when no one writes about wars because there aren’t any and the last one was so far in the past, all its wounds are healed

        is that political writing?
        or navel gazing?

        thought provoking article as usual, thank you Jacinda

  10. Thanks Jacinda for a thought-provoking post. As an emerging writer I have been told many times over that political issues don’t make for good fiction and wondered why not. What could be more gripping and moving than a story that encapsulates what happened on the SIEV-X when more than 350 people drowned.

    The non-fictional account of the devastating, heart-breaking and utterly avoidable deaths of so many on that boat as told by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson are rich with possibility for writers of fiction:

    Another young mother, Roukayya Satta, tried desperately to hold onto her daughters, Kawthar who was five and Alya who was just two. As the boat went down, frantic passengers began stepping on the five-year-old who drowned when she could no longer hold onto her mother. Left with little Alya, Roukayya began searching for her husband. Thrashing passengers kept pushing her under and the third time she went down, she lost Alya. It was only then she spotted her husband among the debris. He grabbed a plank and together they held onto it for their lives. Then bodies of their dead daughters floated by and their father despaired. ‘I have lost my family. I have brought you to this, I do not deserve to live’, he told Roukayya. ‘I do not want to see you die in front of me.’ She remembers her husband’s overwhelming grief just before he, too, disappeared in the sea. ‘He was crying, his grip became loose because of his exhaustion, a wave then came and washed him away from the timber.’
    Everywhere children were drowning: a three-week-old baby sucked into the sea with his mother; a ten-month-old girl who fell from her father’s arms; a child who whose crying mother tried to save her by placing the Koran on her head and reading a prayer, a foetus with its umbilical cord attached to its dead mother. Those still alive saw bodies all around them; they littered the water. Wherever you looked, said one survivor, ‘you see dead children like birds floating on the water.’

    Andrew O’Hagan has spoken of the power of fiction saying it is the news that stays the news http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2007/1950909.htm. Today that news must surely be the impact of the global economic crisis that has not been brought to us by mainstream media, the story of wars without end, the appalling toll of the Gulf oil spill http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2010/2954556.htm, and one last but not least example, climate change.

    And why in Australia so few stories of Indigenous Australians? We need more than stories in the media that tut-tut about the ‘problem’. Fiction can tell us stories that help us make sense of history and create the empathy that leads to change.

    Fiction can reach and move the hearts and minds of people that other reportage cannot. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.

  11. Should have acknowledge that the David Marr and Marian Wilkinson text from which I have taken the excerpt is ‘Dark Victory’.

  12. Andrew O’Hagan didn’t write the line that ‘literature is news that stays news.’ He’s quoting Ezra Pound (from ‘The ABC of Reading’), and I’m not too keen to see Pound’s idea of the connection between literature and politics return…

  13. I’ve just read Genoways’ piece. I think he makes an interesting point about the renaissance of non-fiction, the flip side of failure of contemporary USA fiction writers to engage with the world around them, eg the ‘two wars’. This is evident here too. It’s not that writers aren’t engaging with the big issues of the day, it’s just that writers of fiction have largely ignored them while non-fiction writers have not.

    And so if non-fiction writers can get beyond naval gazing – ‘In a world where 12 million people can march on London to protest a war to no effect’ – if non-fiction writers can ‘know both too much and too little’ and can still act and care sufficiently to write about the big issues, then I think it’s outrageous to suggest as the harvest editorial appears to (going on what you quote Jacinda) that fiction writers should expect readers to ‘learn to appreciate their ‘navel-gazing’.’

    The best books I’ve read in the past few years have engaged passionately with big issues and most of them have been non-fiction, including Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and Raj Patel’s ‘The Value of Nothing’. And some have been novels, including ‘Carpentaria’ and Nadeem Aslam’s complex novel ‘The Wasted Vigil’ about Afghanistan.

    I am not interested in reading fiction that doesn’t engage with a world beyond the author’s naval.

  14. That said I don’t think its helpful for any artist to be solely or too aggressively political, because it alientates people – Crafty Green Poet.

    Are you serious?

    What about The Last Poets, Public Enemy, Wole Soyinka, Alica Walker, and so on and so forth.

    Any serious artist would never hold back from politics because it ‘alienates people’, and any writer who takes this approach is beholden to their audience rather than their (he)art.

  15. A bit of navel gazing is fine with me as long as its not the whole show. I’m opposed to a return to the days when the term ‘bourgeois decadence’ was used as a weapon against self reflective writing. It’s not a matter of being prescriptive about what fiction should or should be but I sense in this conversation and in others I’m having elsewhere, that there is a desire among some readers and writers for a fiction which directly engages with the socio-political frame in which the story, characters and navel gazing are set.

    But it’s not easy for a writer to do this effectively. Andrew O’Hagan discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Don DeLillo’s work (a blend of navel gazing a political framing)in his essay on Falling Man http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/jun/28/racing-against-reality/

    The essay is relevant to the contentious point raised by Trish who argues that the SIEV-X incident could form the basis of fiction, a point I have trouble with.

    Thanks to everyone for their contributions to this lively and important discussion.

  16. I guess I should clarify my previous post: that not necessarily the SIEV-X be a basis for fiction but the many stories of refugees that could speak of their journey, of their struggles, of internment and settlement, racism and misunderstanding.

  17. Perhaps ‘bourgeois decadence’ was apt at times (though I thought it was mainly used as a weapon by Stalinists)? But a throwaway line does not literary criticism make.

    Overland is not trying to be a bureau of culture and define ‘political fiction’, but an author needs to be conscious of their politics and the world around them when they write – because everyone has politics, and it’s evidenced in what they produce.

    When a writer looks around and sees the world, what is their reaction? They can choose to put their head in the sand or hope things go away while the world burns (so to speak), but when cognisant of these events, how do they go on to write pretending these issues don’t exist or not allowing them to make an impact?

    Writers can write that head in the sand fiction, but they are making a choice, conscious of it or not. And that choice has a real political impact. It’s the same for publishers and small presses.

    I’m not advocating a return to social realism, but I am arguing for political fiction, fiction that engages with the world.

    If these presses are simply publishing to publish – to stay afloat – then I think yes, that is a problem. Shouldn’t the purpose and identity come before the publishing? Surely every press has a conceptual framework to do with purpose and identity?

    While diversity and independence are important, I notice a number of journals publishing the same authors. What does that say about diversity in Australian publishing?

    (my ReCaptcha prediction: ‘beeping mid-December’)

  18. Interesting debate.

    All this reminds me of a speech that Christos Tsolkias gave at the Trades Hall as part of the Emerging Writers festival a few years ago now.

    In essence, and I’m remembering so its not as accurate as it may be, the role of the writer should be to fill the silence around us. To shine a light on those issues. And provide debate and deeper understanding around that.

    And I think that Tsolkias does that well.

    In many respects good fiction can do this better than non-fiction or reportage as it can embody this more and break through mere information that reportage is.

  19. I’ve been following this conversation with interest, and I have to say I have a different take on the harvest editorial. To me, Bell is not suggesting for one minute that politics is unrelated or unconnected to literature – rather that young writers today are shaped by the politics of this wrecked and lovely world, and what and how they write is central to this politics. Sure, it’s a nihilistic, narcisstic politics but it’s central to the creative force in many young writers today.

    • Your comment made me search out Bell’s piece, Mary. I’ve just read it and it seems to me that Bell IS suggesting that politics is unrelated to (contemporary) literature: ‘pardon us for filtering out the unimaginable suffering we watch on live broadcasts’ and ‘when you have seen men glide down from burning towers on slipstreams of hate, perhaps it’s not too big a leap to conclude that one’s naval is the only safe place to be looking.’

      I get from this that Bell’s explaining/excusing/condoning a turning away from a terrifying world by writers to seek refuge and safety in their naval. ie an avoidance of the world and the horrors of life. Which is totally fine – but I don’t see it as politically driven and it is not at all like the response of Stein’s ‘Lost Generation’ Bell quotes, likening this generation’s naval-gazing to a ‘summer of Gatsby-style hedonism’. Fitzgerald might have written from his own life, but ‘The Great Gatsby’ is the story of America. Of an era. Not of Fitzgerald’s naval. And Hemingway wrote novels about war. They were Stein’s ‘lost generation’. They were filled with the same despair Bell diagnoses in the current generation but they never sought refuge in their navals.

  20. Interesting that you mention Roberto Bolaño, Emmett. One of his novels, in English titled ‘By Night in Chile’ (translated by Chris Andrews), deals precisely with the debate that has been delineated here (or a version of it): that of aesthetics vs. politics in writing. Thanks to all for great reading.

    • Weirdly, I just wrote something over the weekend that makes the same point; By Night in Chile is great, and interesting because it is an explicitly aestheticised response to the very apolitical nature of aestheticism (reinforced by the fact that the book references and draws on work by Dante, Robert Browning, Pound, Faulkner etc.).

  21. I’m a bit late to this debate, having just read this excellent blog thru, so what I have to say is probably all moot anyway.
    Professional writing courses (ie: University-based) seem like odd beasts. It’s not that writing can’t be taught, but I doubt myself if universities are the place to teach it.I just can’t see how the university discourses of corporatisation, excellence and so forth can possibly be conducive to disruptive creative activity. It makes me think of Orwell’s idea that fascist regimes cause the elimination first of lyric poets, then novelists, etc etc, til only journalists remain. He might have added another symptom the appropriation of ‘creative writing’ by corporate structures.
    It’s true that writers and artists of all kinds need to engage with the world’s politics. And why this has to be said, is that writing is inherently a political activity which a lot of contemporary writing conveniently ignores. Art is political. One doesn’t necessarily have to write about refugees or climate change or whatever – though the extraordinary absence of these things in fiction is a kind of very big flashing neon arrow pointing to how fiction has ceased to look at its own politics – but to accept fiction as a kind of apolitical object with special artistic rules, reduces it to a set of techniques. Which I suspect is what academic-based creative writing is.
    I came across this link this morning (http://www.flickr.com/photos/iamthebestartist/4815719606/sizes/l/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter
    It’s a copy of an assessment by David Foster Wallace of the ficxtion of the young Jessamyn West – radical librarian – when he was teaching creative writing. It reads like a lame primary school report, and I suspect that in its content and shape it is replicated the world over.
    I am very uncomfortable with phrases such as ‘grief porn’ and ‘wrecked and lovely world’ myself. There’s something weirdly narcissistic about them, a bit too ‘lets warm our hands over our beautiful phrases’, that while appearing to hold political content actually hold none.
    To find marginal writers is difficult, because by their very definition they will be hard to see. In fact they may be under our noses, which is where margins are, in corners in places where we would not think to look.In other words they will be in our blind-spots. How to make oneself, or one’s organisation structurally open to blind-spots probably needs to be discussed elsewhere, but I doubt if such structural open-ness is found in university writing courses. Or a lot of literary journals for that matter.
    “whatever Montague’ says reCaptcha in response.

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