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.