What we talk about when we talk about politics

Regular readers will be aware of the back-and-forth between the writer, blogger and academic Emmett Stinson, and various Overland peeps. I’ve been away for the last fortnight, and so missed the most recent installments in the saga. Then, this morning when I started writing in Jane’s thread, my brief comments blew out so much that I’ve decided to publish them here.

I’m glad Emmett’s continued to prosecute the debate because it’s a productive and useful one, and I appreciate the comradely tone in which he’s conducted it.

As he’s pointed out, there are substantial areas of agreement. If I understand rightly, his main concern is to establish the ‘literariness’ of literature, and to defend that from a Philistine didacticism that insists literature should really be (or perhaps already is) politics. I think Emmett’s mostly (though not totally) correct on this. But I also think he carries the argument way, way too far.

But before I get onto that, one of the difficulties with conversations about politics and literature is that it’s not always clear exactly what’s being talked about. It’s probably particularly so in this case, given that Overland is not (you will be shocked to learn) the iron-disciplined Bolshevik outfit it appears, and various editors have articulated slightly different positions (though they’re probably more complementary than contradictory).

More generally, the terrain in arguments about literary politics tends to shifts without anyone noticing, from, say, arguments about what writers should write, to the related but separate question as to what writers should do. So I thought it might help to delineate some of the various ways in which politics and literature intersect for Overland.

Let’s begin with the Mother Jones piece by Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways that Emmett found so problematic. ‘I’m saying,’ argued Genoways, ‘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.’

This was mostly read (and perhaps mostly intended) as an injunction to writers in respect of their writing. I’ll get to that in a minute but I also think it’s equally important for writers as members of an industry – as workers, if you like (even though, strictly speaking, class location is quite problematic in writing and publishing). After all, the first (and in some ways most important) way that politics and literature intersects is in the context of the literary industry. Books are not simply artifacts of culture but also commodities that are bought and sold, a fairly obvious fact that is not discussed nearly enough. We’re living in a time in which the publishing industry – and, in some respects, literature itself – is undergoing major convulsions, and it’s not too grandiose to suggest that decisions made in the next decade or so are going to have profound consequences for reading and writing for years to come. No matter what their aesthetic proclivities, people involved in the industry – whether editors, writers or students – need to engage in these debates. Which means, naturally, politics.

It’s probably fair to say that the default position within the writing/publishing scene is a vague liberalism. Unfortunately, the problems that we’re confronting, particularly in the wake of the GFC, increasingly threaten this whole political paradigm. Most obviously, it’s very difficult to talk about the future of literature without coming to some position on the nature of neoliberalism, which is one reason why anyone who cares about writing does need to start coming to terms with radical politics. A straw in the wind: the new government in Britain has just announced massive – indeed, unprecedented – cuts to its arts budget. Now, the best way to respond to this is not by writing a novel (or for that matter an academic paper): it’s by rallying, organising and so on. In other words, literary problems cannot simply be discussed on the terrain of literature: journals (and writers) need to be involved in political debates and political contestation.

I suspect Emmett agrees with the need for a politicised writing community in this sense – certainly, through his work with SPUNC, he’s personally been involved in many such debates. At the same time, I wonder if our different reactions to the Genoways piece reflect a political difference as much as a literary one. For instance, Emmett objects to Rjurik’s critique of creative writing courses on the ground that Rjurik blames writers and academic creative writing for what are essentially structural problems:

Not only are such programs often the only space in which emerging writers can receive both instructional and financial (via scholarships and stipends) support, but also they are one of the last institutions in which aesthetic merit is held to be a more important criteria of a text than its marketability. Whatever the flaws of such programs, they can’t be held accountable for the larger production of literature (and, indeed, few Australian publishers pay much attention to Creative Writing programs in any systematic way), and I fail to see how attacking either writers or Creative Writing programs will result in any material benefit. To do so is both bad theory and bad praxis.

The implication that academic creative writing is quarantined from the market is, IMO, fundamentally wrong, since such courses have evolved as part of the enterprise university, in which creative disciplines emerged as a marketised response to the desire to escape marketisation (hence the fetishation of ‘self-expression’). Nonetheless, Rjurik’s essay was not about ‘blaming’ either individual students or academics for the evolution of higher education: the point was rather to note that, with the university system and the publishing industry so enmeshed with neoliberalism, some involvement with academic creative writing has become almost necessary for aspiring and established authors. In some senses, then, the task is not to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the academicisation of creative writing, so much as it is to analyse what is taking place and why: ‘not to laugh, not to weep, but to understand’, and all that.

But I think the difference here is partly to do with political orientation, as Rjurik hinted in an earlier comment. It’s necessary and worthwhile to identify the social and economic structures that shape the political terrain but after that what matters is politics. We might not make history on the terms of our choosing but we do still make it, and we have to be careful not to allow our broader analysis to become an alibi for political inactivity. In other words, there are reasons why so many of us study creative writing (such as the institutional and financial support Emmett mentions), just as there are reasons why most of us have to work for wages. But the necessity for paid employment renders industrial militancy more important not less, just as the growing role of academic creative writing makes such courses an inevitable site of contestation.

That’s one reason I like the implied combativity of the Genoways piece (‘Stop being so damned dainty and polite’) because, perhaps more than anything else, what we need at almost every level of the literary industry in Australia are – whisper the word! – activists. Consider the recent tussle over parallel importation. Yes, a lot of writers and publishers became quite worked up about it. Yes, there were lots of OpEd pieces and forums. But did the literary community manage to articulate a convincing and forward-looking alternative to a free market perspective, one that positioned Australian-writing for a digital age? I don’t think we did – and nor did we display any real ability to organise or take collective action. Certainly, in the course of that debate, we could have done with a layer of radicals prepared to ‘put themselves on the line’.

But I also like the Genoways piece in the context of a slightly different intersection between politics and literature. Perhaps it’s too grandiose to call writers ‘public intellectuals’ but over the last few decades a festival scene and events program has evolved in which writers (including emerging ones) are increasingly asked to speak in public, in a way that many other people are not. This means, IMO, that they have a moral responsibility to engage with – and know something about – the issues of the day. That’s why most writing courses nowadays will advise young writers to learn something about oratory: public engagement is no longer an optional extra but a central facet of a writers’ life. Yet this engagement is usually pitched in terms of self-advancement: a matter of branding and promotion more than politics.

So when Genoways suggests that ‘young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world,’ I think of all the festivals with panels dominated by people incapable of talking about anything other than themselves. In the piece that kicked off this whole discussion, Jacinda asked: ‘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?’

Well, yes, I think we do. Emmett says he is wary of ethical imperatives and so I guess, if need be, we can debate what ‘morality’ means in this context but, personally, I don’t have a problem arguing that, precisely because writers have public opportunities that others lack, they have an obligation to speak out, to cheer up slaves and horrify despots, as it were.

Again, I’m not sure how much we disagree over this. But it’s a point I wanted to make, because it’s not articulated often enough.

OK, so far I’ve talked about the politics of literature largely outside the book. But what about the politics of writing itself?

Novels have, on occasion, explicitly functioned as political interventions. Overland itself emerged in the backwash of Power Without Glory, a book that genuinely made a real difference in the Victorian labour movement. Elsewhere, you could think about The Jungle, the Upton Sinclair book that led to reforms of the Chicago meatworks, or Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, said to have helped Labour win the 1945 general election.

But these are exceptions, interesting precisely because their political impact comes not from their literariness per se but rather because their status as novels serves as a Trojan horse to smuggle particular ideas or politics into the public sphere.

The relative decline in the cultural status of literature makes this less likely today. A biographical film might (perhaps) bring down a politician but it’s difficult to imagine that a contemporary John Wren would have much to fear from a contemporary Frank Hardy. The days of the novel as activist intervention are, I suspect, over. I do think, however, we could have an interesting discussion about the activist possibilities of literary non-fiction – but that’s a debate for a different day.

In any case, as I said, I pretty much agree with Emmett that literature isn’t activism, and that the confusion of the two is, in most cases, a category error. Nonetheless, I also agree with Jacinda when, following Genoways, she writes ‘If we want literature to matter to this epoch, then we need a literature that engages with the questions of this time.’

To tease out the implications of this, it’s worth going back to some of the earlier arguments in this debate. In his Kill Your Darlings piece, Emmett writes:

It seems here that Woodhead and Genoways both make a questionable assump­tion about the way both literature and representation function. Woodhead and Genoways appear to share an Aristotelian conception of ‘mimesis’ in which art effectively holds a mirror up to the world, reflecting reality (or ‘reality’). To put it another way, they seem to assume that literature has to be ‘about’ something, that it must have a ‘point’ – but this is not really the case. […]To explain it simply, language doesn’t have a discrete, unambiguous meaning, and any two readers can read a text and come to very different (and mutually exclusive) conclusions about it. But here’s the problem: they may both be right. This has profound effects on Woodhead’s claim. … [I]s [Waiting for Godot] apolitical aestheticism or a post-World War II fable? The answer, sadly, is dependent not on the text itself, but rather on how you read it. But Genoways and Woodhead ignore this and speak about literature as if we all already know what it is, as if it were a thing like a table – and a thing that must have a clear and practical ‘use’. […]This return to antiquated notions of literature is worrisome, because, too often, the claim that literature isn’t ‘political’ enough results in a nostalgia for nineteenth-century social novels, like those of Dickens and Gissing, that offer clear morals.

With the greatest respect, that twanging noise is the sound of a pretty long bow being drawn.

Firstly, the claim political literature necessitates nostalgia for nineteenth century realism is simply factually wrong, given the whole alphabet of the radical avant-garde (from A for Acker, to B for Breton, and so on and so forth). But let’s leave that aside.

What’s far more problematic is that Emmett massively over-eggs his theoretical pudding. He explains that representation is a fraught concept, which is fine, though hardly controversial. But the fact that political engagement is problematic doesn’t mean that texts don’t (or perhaps, as Emmett sometimes suggests, can’t) relate to political realities: it simply means that the processes by which that relationship takes place are complex, mediated and contradictory, which is, of course, precisely why we need theory.

Instead of teasing that out, Emmett embraces an extreme philosophical idealism, the implications of which he doesn’t seem to have thought through. That is, he suggests that literary meaning is produced exclusively in interpretation, and is, in fact, totally independent of the novel itself. Now, he puts this forward as a critique of political literature, but, if taken seriously, it’s really a negation of literature per se. Quite obviously, if any interpretations of texts are equally valid (which is what Emmett suggests), the novel itself becomes entirely moot, since critics can find equally profound and equally correct readings in Shakespeare, in a Mills and Boon novel or in a bus ticket.

This position – which you normally only encounter in right-wing parodies of cultural studies – is so theoretically untenable that you might think that the passage is just poorly phrased. But then there’s this paragraph from Emmett’s blog.

Everyone who is currently holding the position that art needs to take on the real world, engage with real issues, adhere to standard notions of plot and characertisation, or think more about content, repeat after me: ‘I am a complete and total philistine. I have rejected completely the innovations of modernism and have a deep, profound and aesthetically conservative nostalgia for the classics of literature (as I have chosen to define them in my own personal cannon).

To be sure, this is, as Emmett makes clear, tongue-in-cheek (he calls it a ‘rant’). Nonetheless, the egregious misreading of modernism seems to confirm that he really does think that there’s no relationship between the novel and the world, almost as if a piece of fiction represented pure abstraction, like theoretical mathematics, except without the rigour.

In any case, aside from anything else, the cited paragraph serves as a reductio ad absurdum for the whole argument, simply because of its grotesque implications for twenty-first century art. Ignore the real world! Don’t engage with real issues! Think less about content! If that’s a manifesto for contemporary literature, well, we’re all fucked.

Emmett’s reaction is so extreme that one almost imagines Genoways as a new Zhdanov – and, indeed, the bogeyman of socialist realism has been invoked more than once in this argument. Yet let’s remind ourselves of what socialist realism meant. In the high Stalinist period, Zhdanovism required leftist writers to follow a detailed blueprint (a positive hero, simple prose, upbeat ending and so on). Genoways suggests nothing like that. He puts forward no model, offers no blueprints, backs no particular style. Indeed, in his very brief polemic in a generalist magazine. Genoways specifically does not argue (as Emmett claims) that ‘everything will be OK’ if writers turn outwards. He simply contends that an outward turn would be a step forward, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a literary revival – and, to be honest, I’m rather surprised at the hostility that this fairly unexceptional proposition engendered.

Yes, Emmett’s right to say that a call to ‘engage’ with the world begs a lot of questions: questions about politics, about ethics, about representation. But that’s precisely the point of both Jacinda’s and Genoways’ articles (at least as I read them): to provoke a discussion of what an outward turn might mean under today’s conditions.

In any case, let’s look specifically at what Genoways says.

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq.

Bemoaning a lack of novels about the Iraq war does not entail a confusion of fiction and politics, nor does it inevitably push you back to the nineteenth century. On the contrary, it recognises the ability of literature to function as literature – that is, to provide a kind of insight that no other mode can replace.

Since we’re talking wars, let’s consider how writers responded to the Great War, a topic that’s always fascinated me. The poems written during and about that conflict were poems, nothing more and nothing less. Counterattack is not The Junius Pamphlet, and anyone who mistook the one for each other was sorely mistaken. In terms of politics, Sassoon’s work didn’t – couldn’t – do the same work as Luxemburg’s. But that’s not to say that poetic engagement with the war was a waste of time. Poetry does different things, operates on a different level, provides different kind of knowledge. If you read Owen, you didn’t get the same understanding about war as you do from reading Bukharin. But that’s not to say Owen would have done as well to write poems about buttercups rather than trenches – it’s simply to reaffirm that literature functions in a literary register. The writers of 1916 didn’t stop the war. But they did change the way we think about it.

Again, it’s precisely because literature matters as literature that the lack of fiction and poetry about Iraq and Afghanistan is a problem. No, of course, today’s writers can’t simply imitate the war poets of the past. But, again, that’s the whole point about trying to face up to the specific issues of your era – the process necessarily problematises the tools at your disposal (as modernism itself showed). Just as the Georgian poets proved incapable of dealing with trench warfare, the best writing about war today will require a struggle over technique and form and so on, a struggle that will inevitably tackle the questions about representation that so concern Emmett.

Again, the call for engagement is the beginning of the argument, not its end.

Equally, none of this means that the only decent novels of 2010 will deal with wars. Nor does it imply that the only way to come to terms with an age of permanent conflict is to write realist fiction set in Afghanistan. You can make profound and important fiction about any subject; you can create an intensely political novel out of your failed love affair. Of course you can!

In some ways, though, the argument’s not dissimilar to a call for writers to engage more with theory. You can write a powerful and innovative book despite knowing nothing whatsoever of theory – and many people have. Conversely, you can be the most theoretically astute writer around, and still come up with terrible fiction (cf Terry Eagleton, Tariq Ali, etc). But what do we conclude from that? That because some trades people do good work without any tools, and others ruin their material despite having top-notch equipment, tools are therefore useless?

You can see the analogy with political engagement. Yes, Emmett’s right to say that it’s not necessarily obvious what writing a poem ‘about’ Iraq means in the current context. But, really, isn’t that the whole point? It’s the task of our generation to come up with new answers to those questions, not to simply throw up our hands at the impossibility of it all.

I really don’t see what about that should be controversial.

To be honest, I would have thought the problem for most writers in Australia is not that they come under fire from commissars like Genoways or Woodhead but rather that political and aesthetic questions are almost never discussed, at least in the public sphere. When, for instance, was the last time that any major Australian writers feuded about particular conceptions of the novel? That’s precisely why this whole debate has been so refreshing – it’s the kind of argument almost entirely lacking in either the literary mainstream or the Australian small press scene.

And that’s important in terms of the practical repercussions of these arguments. Emmett worries that Overland is committed to social realism (which, to be honest, struck me as odd, since there’s quite an overlap the writers published in Overland and many of those who appear in Wet Ink). The point is, however, that in the current climate, it would be very difficult to be so prescriptive, even if we wanted to (which we don’t). One of the real problems for literary journals in this country is that there simply isn’t any explicit contestation between aesthetic schools taking place, which is why so many of the publications simply define themselves as publishing ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ writing, and why so many of the same people appear in all the journals.

I think this is bad news, not good. But we are where we are. Again, the problem is political, as much as literary. Historically, there tends to be a pretty close association between periods of political ferment and periods of aesthetic experimentation, while eras of social stagnation (such as this one) tend not to be conducive to literary breakthroughs.

That’s why, in terms of political writing, Overland’s goals over the last few years have been fairly modest. We’ve tried to encourage dialogue between writers and activists, we’ve explored political issues relevant to the industry, we’ve published reviews and critiques of various radical novels, and we’ve encouraged submissions from people who we think are producing important political writing. Yet, just as we can’t summon up a political mass movement from out of nothing, we’re pretty limited in our ability to foster a resurgence of political writing. But we don’t think that when that resurgence takes place, it will be in the form of a single aesthetic mode, which we will then ruthlessly enforce. On the contrary, it seems to me that the function of a journal like Overland is rather to provide a forum in which questions about politics and literature can be debated.

Which, hopefully, is what we’re doing with this debate.

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

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  1. ‘such courses have evolved as part of the enterprise university, in which creative disciplines emerged as a marketised response to the desire to escape marketisation (hence the fetishation of ‘self-expression’)’

    The point about the marketised response to the desire to escape marketisation is absolutely right, and if anything even more absurd than you imply, but a couple of brief points: creative writing courses at Australian universities do in fact predate the ‘enterprise university’ (I know this because I was teaching in them); and the fetish of self-expression actually had its genesis, or one of its geneses, in primary and high school curricula (also a conclusion I reached when I was teaching at universities) in the 1970s and 1980s — students were arriving at university with that fetish already well and truly intact.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. Very heartening, as I’m halfway through a manuscript which – when I lift my head from the thickets of sentence, narrative, etc – is certainly an ‘engaged’ piece, although of a non-didactic kind. Your point about innovation arising from the problematisation of literary form in dealing with changing conditions, is an excellent one.

    Two related points – and here I’m speaking from personal experience, which does not necessarily translate. I find thinking about theory to be kryptonite when I’m writing fiction: like concentrating on the engineering of a bicycle when one is learning to ride – not only because I’m new to fiction writing (I’ll admit I have to guess here) but because the modes of thought (or rather activity) are so alien to each other. Second – and this follows on – I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that, despite not intentionally setting out to write a politically engaged piece, it has emerged as one – inevitably, I think, because of the way I see the world. Perhaps this makes me one of the creativity fetishists or idealists; I don’t really think so; it’s more a kind of superstitious faith that I will find my way in the writing, not in the thinking… Getting a bit self-indulgent here so I’ll stop!

  3. “I don’t have a problem arguing that, precisely because writers have public opportunities that others lack, they have an obligation to speak out, to cheer up slaves and horrify despots, as it were.”

    Neither do I. But I do have a problem with literary journals whose fiction editors ask fiction writers to produce “politically engaged” literature primarily (or even partly) because writers possess such opportunities. No problem with such writers being politically engaged, or speaking out, or organising or rallying or whatever. But to ask them to produce fiction that is somehow an offshoot of their political engagement still sends a shiver down my spine.

    Why not just ask them for politically engaged non-fiction? That’s the question I still haven’t seen answered in all this back-and-forth. What is the advantage of fictionalising one’s political engagement? As you yourself write, Jeff: “The days of the novel as activist intervention are, I suspect, over” — so, if we strike out activist intervention as a possible advantage of fictionalising one’s political engagement, what are the alternatives? It seems to me that you either end up with thinly veiled propaganda (“I’m writing recognisably left-wing political fiction for publication in a left-wing journal”) or — horror of horrors — a very slight twist on the same sort of navel-gazing bemoaned by Ted Genoways (“my politics are so precious to me that I couldn’t possibly write something which doesn’t communicate my lifelong commitment to social justice”).

    1. ‘A shiver down your spine …’! Really? OK, I get that you might not think a call for ‘politically engaged’ literature useful or productive or whatever, but the ongoing suggestion that there’s something sinister or scary about it, as if it’s a hop skip and jump from wanting a story about a strike to building gulags in Fitzroy, seems downright weird, and makes me suspect that we’re really dealing with a political disagreement here, not a literary one.
      Yes, politics are precious to people, not because they’re navel-gazers, but because the vast majority of catastrophes confronting the world are no longer natural but social, so that political engagement isn’t just a hobby or an affectation but something that actually matters. I don’t want to be snippy about that but if we don’t have consensus on that, there’s probably not much point continuing the discussion, because we’re unlikely to agree.
      As for politically engaged non-fiction, yes, I’m all for it (indeed, I have been known to write it myself). The point is, though, as I tried to argue above, is that fiction is different, and does different things.

      1. Daniel, as one of the editors you’re referring to, I’m not ‘asking writers to produce “politically engaged literature”‘. I’m saying that for those writers who are mixing or want to mix fiction and politics, then I’d love to see their stories, they are welcome at Overland. I am issuing an invitation, not a prescription. (Oh that word issue again!)

        1. Really?

          “[I]n my role as Overland’s next fiction editor, *overtly* political fiction is what I’ll be hoping to publish. Although Overland has left behind its origins in the Realist Writer, in 2010 it remains a literary magazine with a political bent. And so it seems natural enough to me that Overland in the 21st century would be endeavouring to publish new politically engaged fiction, to experiment with just what this might mean, to be at the vanguard of such writing.”

          Not writing in general, but “such writing.” Maybe that is, as you say, an invitation, but isn’t there a point at which an invitation with conditions attached to it *becomes* a prescription?

          1. Not a prescription because I’m not saying writers should write one way or another. But yes, I’m more interested in a certain type of fiction for Overland, which I think it entirely consistent with the OL ethos and in fact something I was asked to explore. My most exciting moments as a freelance editor came with editing what I’d call ‘overtly political fiction’, most notable eg ‘Dead Europe’. It thrilled me to bits. I wouldn’t have returned to editing for anything less.
            (I’d actually given up editing, as I wrote on the OL blog earlier this year. I’ve been coaxed back by the only editing gig in town that excites me.)

  4. Great post, and not to sound too dainty (there are worse things than daintiness such as stoicism and self assurance), but isn’t there something a bit heavy about the idea of a ‘moral obligation’? Writers are not the only ones whose platform has increased – as well as the countless bloggers, twitterers and so on and so forth online, musicians, comedians, actors and people who are particularly good at cooking seem to be given more and more air time. Ramona Koval can be podcasted or streamed from anywhere, anytime. So how far does this moral obligation go? Why stop at, or single out, writers? What about experts and people who can actually talk about the complexities? Why not foist it upon everyone? Is Jeff Sparrow the person to suggest we have a moral obligation or should mummy and daddy have impressed it upon us?

    Why stop at wars or the global financial crisis? Or rather, where should one stop? There are many other things that should concern us, like rights of asylum seekers, animal rights, the right to education and to information, and this is no place for a list. Does every dance, every wave and gesture, every utterance contain this obligation? And would this universal obligation decrease or increase conflict? Isn’t fantastic non-politicised (humble in this way) writing a celebration of life? And as such, isn’t it a force for good? Maybe, maybe not. But that won’t stop the whales in the short term.

    Calling it a moral obligation can only serve to create an us and them attitude – a split between those who are fighting the good fight and those who are not. And calling it a moral obligation determines some issues, some concerns, to have more importance than others and every writer should be concerned when a book or journal publisher deems it their responsibility to make such decisions. A call to take action is a call to take sides. If we start judging writing on whether or not it conforms to a particular attitude what does that do to morally nuanced novels like Waiting for the Barbarians or our Secret River, both of which have been attacked for straying but both of which offer insight? The problem with the Trojan horse analogy is there’s rarely subterfuge in such works and if there is, well, I’m not sure that’s morally okay either.

    I’ll incite good old Bakhtin and say that fiction, particularly novels (collectively and individually), are brilliant for capturing the texture, the variance, the utterances, the languages and gestures of a time and/or a place – politicising is ultimately a distortion. If I’m taking this literally, well, perhaps this is my (humble) point.

  5. What about The Wire? It’s a TV show, but it’s very novelistic in its form, and it’s both serious art and highly political. It’s certainly not a sugared pill – the social conditions of Baltimore *are* its subject.

    Contrariwise, the politics of an artist may be irrelevant in its potential for changing the way we think, including about society and politics. Engels singled out Balzac – thoroughly reactionary in his personal politics – for praise, because of his insightful picture of people and society – Oliver’s point above.

    But (to change ‘sides’ again, as I am myself conflicted) I think some of the commenters are interpreting ‘political engagement’ in a narrow and prescriptive sense. I don’t think you have to be banging the drum for a specific ‘message’ to be writing in a political engaged way – there’s nothing new to this insight – contrast early (didactic) and late (dialectic) Brecht.

  6. Jeff–thanks for your lengthy and considered response. I just want to note a few things:

    1) I stand corrected (as I’ve noted before): OL is not advocating social realism per se. There is, however, a strong mimetic undercurrent to the ‘engagement’ notion that still troubles me.

    2) My ideas about texts do not suggest that ‘literature’ occurs only in interpretation or that all interpretations are equal. Rather, I suggest that texts are mediated (in a pretty standard notion of hermeneutics) from authorial intent to text to reader–in point of fact the mediation of texts is far more complex in reality (editors, designers, PR people, booksellers, etc.). Interpretation should be based on textual effect (which theoretically–and this is the bit I actually think is most contentious–is based on authorial intent). Also to note that a text enables multiple and mutually exclusive readings doesn’t suggest that all readings are equally good. Even Stanley Fish, a prominent reader-response critic (and relativist boogeyman for conservative critics), notes that not all readings are good or even plausible. In this sense, a call for authors to change their intent through an ethically ordained engagement with politics wouldn’t even really be sufficient to effect the change OL desires–so I don’t even understand the focus on it. But you, yourself, address the need for other types of changes.

    3) We have had recent big author debates (eg. http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/06/10/courtenay-vs-carey/), but they are usually framed along pretty traditional lines (as the above Carey/Courtenay debate over populism vs. ‘literary’ tradition). I think (or at least hope) this debate has been different, but I think that part of the struggle for both sides (if there are even ‘sides’) is in articulating notions of new possibilities without falling back into the rhetoric of previous positions. This is a difficult and ongoing project.

    4) I agree that books aren’t discussed often enough as commodities. I’ve written about it here: http://emmettstinson.blogspot.com/2010/09/literary-links-reviewing-reviewers.html
    Much of my argument is that we need to think about systems of literary dissemination more than systems of literary creation–and in this sense I think Genoways is incorrect to blame writers. Indeed, I think the writing that both OL and I want is already out there, but obscured from public view for the very reason that it isn’t marketable.

    5) The point where we agree the most is in the notion of practical ‘activism’ for those invested in the literary. I think, now in particular, those who care about ‘literature’ need to think about the material production and reception of books, about how they are disseminated, and how those excluded from or marginalised by extant industrial networks can work collectively to create other systems, modes or networks of dissemination. There is, of course, a political valence to all of this, but, to me, these networks needn’t overtly reflect a particular ideology, radical or otherwise. So, it’s a strange sort of activism. My work with organisations like SPUNC, Wet Ink, Triple R and others is all a reflection of my belief in collective and collaborative action.

    6) What bothers me most in all of this is still this notion that art must be/ought to be/has a moral imperative to be political. This notion creates a division between ‘engaged’ art and art that is effectively dismissed as decadent. Historically, these kinds of divisions have resulted in some not very pretty outcomes (which you address above). I think rhetoric and emphasis is very important here. It’s one thing to encourage new forms and possibilities, and another entirely to issue imperatives.

    1. Thank Emmett,
      As I said, I appreciate the discussion and your participation in it.
      Very quickly, a few responses
      On point one, yes, let’s move on.
      On point two, OK, much happier with that argument (it’s a much more nuanced position than in your KYD piece).
      On point three, yep, I enjoyed the Carey thing but I think my point still stands. In most countries, there’s a clear literary left and right. Not sure you could say that here.
      On point four, I do know you’re interested in that. Why, we even published you on the topic. 🙂
      On point five, yes, agreed again
      On point six, um, kinda agree but also kinda disagree. But perhaps that’s for another day.

      1. Great post Jeff, such clarity.
        And Emmett – I like your point 4 and agree that the writing both you and OL want is probably already out there, which is why I wanted at some stage to make a public call for it as forthcoming fiction editor for OL. Which I did in my brief post provoked by reading yours.

  7. Joshua: “I think some of the commenters are interpreting ‘political engagement’ in a narrow and prescriptive sense…”

    Here’s what Jane Gleeson-White, the new fiction editor of Overland, wrote on Emmett Stinson’s blog:

    “I know an imperative is not conditional, but I read Jacinda’s call for writers to engage with the world as conditional on the times: ‘If we want literature to matter in this epoch, then we need a literature that engages with the questions of this time’ – while Rome is burning, then our writers shouldn’t be fiddling. ie because there are so many things wrong with the contemporary world, then there is an imperative to write fiction engaged with issues of the day.”

    I’d say that there’s a qualitative difference between “politically engaged” fiction broadly conceived and “fiction engaged with the issues of the day.” I’d also say and that, if either one of them is “narrow and prescriptive,” it’s the latter, and that one came straight from the editor…

    Although, of course, two paragraphs further down she wrote this: “As for engaging with the world in fiction – I do not mean ‘fiction should simply include contemporary “issues”. Unless you think that ‘1984’ or ‘Carpentaria’ simply include contemporary ‘issues’.” To be charitable, I think that’s called placing a bet each way.

    Link: http://emmettstinson.blogspot.com/2010/10/writers-and-values-final-response-to.html.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out Daniel. I guess it depends on what one means by the issues of the day. I’m not being narrow and prescriptive – I’m hoping to provide a forum where politically engaged fiction is welcome in all its manifestations, which I saw as the role of an OL fiction editor when I agreed to do the work. Perhaps the word ‘issues’ is the problem and I agree it has overtones of triteness and banality, but I was using it in its broadest sense and confluent with ‘politically engaged fiction’. Engage with our age is what I was meaning and in that sense both ‘1984’ and ‘Carpentaria’ do with theirs and more.

      1. I don’t think the word “issues” is the problem; I think it’s the words “of the day.” Consider, for instance, Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” First-rate fiction and overtly political, but written well after the political events it depicts — it engages with issues, but not issues “of the day.” (And I’d say “Known Unknowns” is of the same type, although of course not of the same class. “Carpentaria,” too, for that matter.) But then look at something like Ian McEwan’s “Solar.” How much more “engaged with the issues of the day” can a work of fiction possibly be? And how much more awful **as a work of fiction** can it possibly get?

        Ninety-nine per cent of the time, immediacy — contemporaneity; being “of the day” — is the enemy of art; it is a handmaiden to aesthetic disposability and thus to irrelevance. And I doubt that the one per cent of authors for whom that isn’t true would ever bother to submit their work on spec to a literary journal at the bottom of the world. And for that reason, I ask again: why not just settle altogether for non-fiction over fiction? If you want writing engaged with the issues of the day, non-fiction is clearly your preferred mode, from “In Cold Blood” through to “The Tall Man.” What specifically is it about fiction as an art form that leads you to believe that fiction is appropriate for purposes of contemporary political engagement, wherein its political engagement is necessary for it to obtain value on an artistic level?

        1. 1. Of the day. Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’ addresses the issues of his day. By ‘day’ I mean epoch, era, times. I’m using ‘day’ in its broadest sense, as should be obvious from the examples I give.

          2. Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’: you have chosen the PERFECT example as far as I’m concerned. I find McEwan so dull I gave up reading him years ago. I’m not surprised that he was not up to climate change. It would require a writer greater than he to write this ‘issue of the day’/era/epoch/times. Writers who have recently succeeded to do so, in my opinion, include Orhan Pamuk on the politics of Islam (‘Snow’), Alexis Wright on the politics of land and Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in ‘Carpentaria’, Don DeLillo in post war USA politics in ‘Underworld’, JM Coetzee on politics of race and gender in ‘Disgrace’. I’d say Nadeem Aslam also gets the politics of terrorism in ‘The Wasted Vigil’ and Kazuo Ishiguro is brilliant on cloning in ‘Never Let Me Go’.

          3. No, non-fiction is not my preferred mode. I do love it (see my review of Raj Patel’s ‘The Value of Nothing’ on OL blog) but I prefer it when my non-fiction passions – maths/physics, economics and politics – collide with my other passion, fiction. So I love it when I find mathematics in a novel (Sue Woolfe’s ‘Leaning Towards Infinity’), glimpse economic change in the background of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and read about the political machinations of post-Napoleonic France in ‘The Red and the Black’. I find it thrilling when the novelistic imagination successfully engages with these big questions. It is hard to do. But when it works it’s my favourite kind of fiction. I read (and edit) for the moments I find it.

  8. Daniel – you make a good point: ‘I’d say that there’s a qualitative difference between “politically engaged” fiction broadly conceived and “fiction engaged with the issues of the day.”’

    I like the differentiation, not only because the former is less restrictive, it is also potentially more radical. Because the ‘issues of the day’ as defined by the media, public discourse etc, are as much the product of ideology as they are of events on the ground. Literature that opens our eyes to new ways of looking at the world – not to provide answers, but to ask new questions – is a real achievement.

  9. Joshua, isn’t arguing that ‘Literature that opens our eyes to new ways of looking at the world’ itself a limitation on the possibilities of literature? This is simply another attempt to turn literature into something utilitarian; as Gilbert Sorrentino said it: “You try to live in America, where they either hate art of try to use it. . . . The poem as tool. Break open somebody’s door with it, or unhook a brassiere. But don’t just let it stand there, useless.” I’m not saying that art needs to be “useless”, but I certainly wouldn’t want to require it to have a purpose, either.

    1. Where’s the “Like” button when you need one? To my mind, the weakest aspect of contemporary literary discourse is the repeated insistence on the part of readers to approach all literature (by which I here mean prose fiction) on extra-literary terms or to wield it for extra-literary purposes. It speaks of a general queasiness about approaching and evaluating art qua art, and is, at its worst extreme, a resolute failure on the part of audiences (in this case, readers) to acknowledge (if not answer) the demands that art makes of them.

  10. I didn’t say “literature should” – just that it’s an achievement when it does. No requirement. That having been said, can you think of a great piece of literature that doesn’t make you see things differently? As by-product, not (necessarily) as purpose; but I think it’s always there. I can’t imagine it. “I read this book, it was great, but it didn’t change me in any way whatsoever” – is an oxymoron, surely.

  11. Great post and a lively, very important debate. I’m on a bus and can only comment briefly. I think the bone of contention in this discussion is political,not aesthetic. The times are such that lines should, indeed must, be drawn between activities and opinions that reinforce the political status quo and those that robustly challenge it. This applies as much to the production of literature as it does to
    the production of energy, for example. I tend to think artists have a certain duty in times of social and political change to align their art with their political beliefs. I see no reason to apologise for this nor to dilute its potency. This is no time to be meek.

  12. I agree, this is a political question: either a person recognises their political position in society, from their union membership to their writing, or they don’t.

    Emmett, I have no idea what you mean when you say: ‘I’m not saying that art needs to be “useless”, but I certainly wouldn’t want to require it to have a purpose, either.’

    How can art – what art! – have no purpose? You don’t have to require art to have a purpose, because there is no way art could be produced without one (whether it’s self-expression, to entertain, monetary) and it’s unlikely to be a single, conscious purpose. Arguing that artists should not attempt to understand why they create their art or what role that plays in society is fundamentally conservative. It neutralises art to the point that it only functions as a commodity.

    Essentially, it seems to me that you are arguing for non-engagement in the production of art. Being ignorant of your trade is not inherently noble. (And this of course relates to Batuman’s article about reading.)

    As Boris says, we need to draw our lines in the sand. I would argue that artists need to be conscious of why they create their art (purpose) and, as a leftwinger, I would argue that they need to be conscious of the politics of their art.

      1. Actually, Emmett, I have no idea what you mean. ‘Overdetermined origins’? Are you for real? So no-one should ever wonder why they wrote a book? Or would that be exploring ‘overdetermined origins’?

        I don’t understand how you can posit that artists do not have a ‘purpose’ while also not wanting art to remain ‘useless’. You seem to be stripping language of linguistic value.

        Are you saying that artists have no intent (as in ‘purpose’) when they write or make art?

        In fact, why don’t you say what you’re arguing for instead of continually changing the parameters of what you’re arguing against?

        1. In response to your question (“Are you saying that artists have no intent (as in ‘purpose’) when they write or make art?”): Well, no, I’m not sure writers do have a purpose, or at least not in the way you seem to suggest (writers don’t necessarily write for publication, for money, for fame, to prove a point, to tell a story or any of the above). And as whether I’m ‘for real’, the answer, sadly, is yes: if we’re going to resort to psychologism (as your focus on intent and purpose does), then yes, artistic works are overdetermined.

          I think I’ve been pretty clear on my personal biases and literary preferences, but I also have no desire to foist those preferences onto others an an ethical imperative. I’m interested in maintaining an open space for literature, not in limiting its potentialities.

  13. I note here how Jeff is valorising a social commitment over formal expression. Social commitment comes first and then we work out (however non-prescriptively) what this means for formal expression. Emmett I’m taking it valorises formal expression but allows that the political meanings thereby generated or associated with these forms are important and interesting. I might be verballing them but in any case I’m still not satisfied with either of these kind of moves by them or others as I think both art and politics are both more important than this kind of erring on one side or the other regarding the question of commitment vs expression.

    Maybe we start from the recognition that the wider division of art and life is symptomatic of the kind of society we live in, a division that is itself part of the terrain we deal with. This is underlined by the failure of movements like modernism and the avant-garde to see the radical joining of art and life (other than in its eventual commodified forms). But there is also importance in that attempt by these movements to take stances that are both, and often simultaneously, politically and aesthetically radical in their attitudes to tradition, the bourgeoisie, rebellion, a world marked by loss of ‘aura’, and the determination to ‘make it new’. I think part of this was to factor in the status and role of art in bourgeois society and thereby give it due emphasis and respect as a unique kind of practice distinct from other ways we engage with world. Its a kind of utopian challenge (with both the strengths and drawbacks this implies) but perhaps also a potential resource for developing discussions like this and possibly wider political/aesthetic practice.

  14. For those wondering what “engaged fiction” means, I suspect the meaning has shifted quite a way from my original formulation (which is where, I think, the term originated in this debate). If I could state again, my original formulation was a development of an argument I made in an Overland editorial, in which I wrote:

    “We live in a deeply commodified culture that values style over substance, image over reality, the disposable over the sustainable. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, The Da Vinci Code and Transformers, Australian Idol and Border Security – these are the faces of mass culture.”

    In my essay on creative writing, I developed this reading of contemporary culture:

    “It’s possible, then, to imagine a countercultural movement that argues for a literature that takes us back into the world – that thinks about the issues that surround and affect us – rather than away from it: a culture of engagement rather than escapism, of reflection rather than consolation.”

    I raise this clarification – even though I’ve made it in a previous post (http://web.overland.org.au/2010/09/29/the-overland-line/) – because I think it makes some sense to become specific in this debate. If we were critique “Twilight”, I noted in that earlier post, we might see it as:

    “a novel which reaffirms, as Laura Miller has explained, the ‘traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life’s vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth’.”

    Now, like most novels which uphold some kind of sexist representations, this plays itself out on the level of form and content. It’s not a matter of one or the other. In my mind, this is a literature of consolation, one which reaffirms a traditional ideology, one which takes us away from the world into an ideological fantasy. It is a novel replete with political messages encoded within its narrative form. It is just the latest in a long line of pieces of art which perform this role. To take one off the top of my head: the film ‘Fatal Attraction” reaffirms a whole number of ideological myths (there is an excellent chapter on it in Susan Faludi’s “Backlash”). If I was to say, “Fatal Attraction” was a deeply misogynist film, would the appropriate reply be “Rjurik, you’ve made a category error. You need to judge it not as a political argument, but as a piece of art”? Indeed, for those against the kinds of notions proposed by Overland editors, what exactly do you think the magazine’s policy should be? If we received a brilliant piece of writing which was misogynist, homophobic, or racist, should we publish it? On what basis?

    To continue this line of reasoning: what could we say about the whole 1960s feminist reconstruction of literature, in which a whole generation of female writers set about to write fiction which changed the literary representation of gender relations – a movement which left practically no genre untouched – and insisted that literature could not be separated from its political (gender) content? I suppose we’d have to say they too – by arguing for an engaged art – were making a category error. Perhaps the idea of writing feminist literature would send a shiver up our spine.

    Overland sees itself as an inheritor of these progressive traditions, just as it hopes to be the inheritor of the other radical art movements of the 1960s and after. Race, gender, sexuality – there were powerful political movements at the time which sought to develop corresponding literary movements in these areas. What continuing these kinds of traditions means today is obviously a matter for debate, if you’re interested in developing an engaged culture. If not, it seems to me that you are still essentially arguing for art for arts sake.

    1. Oh think I have to just comment on the art for art’s sake jibe. Oscar Wilde was one of the foremost practitioners of art for art’s sake but I suspect adhered to it as a way to radically resist the greyness of Victorian convention. He would have objected to the idea that art reflect or represent such life, and would have said that life instead should make itself artistic. Wilde was above all a political radical and art for art’s sake was an integral part of this. This perhaps illustrates Emmett’s point about the problem with designating certain kinds of art as decadent etc.

      1. Yes, I was thinking along similar lines to Rjurik: that if, we want to progress this debate, we should become more concrete. As he suggests, a recent social movement like women’s liberation provides a pretty good touchstone to assess the orientation of Overland and that of its critics. That is, the women’s movement meant a politicisation of literature in all the different senses I describe in the post: activism within the literary industry (women’s presses, bookstores, etc); writers intervening as public intellectuals; books as activism (in fact, thinking about feminism makes me realise that category probably does have more life in it than I’d suggested); and, perhaps most importantly for this discussion, a great torrent of consciously political novels, in which women (and men) celebrated and documented the new movement, and explored through literature changing notions of gender, sexuality and politics.
        Did that lead those authors back to formally conservative modes like social realism or the nineteenth century moral novel? To ask the question is to answer it. In fact, the politicisation of literature that took place then spurred tremendous formal innovation on almost every front, including (as I suggested in the original post) a renewed interest in the notion of representation.
        In fact, it’s hard to think of a social movement that hasn’t had the same impact. Take Aboriginal activism in the seventies here. Did the political concerns of Aboriginal writers lead to literary innovations or to literary stagnation? Or, more generally, were Aboriginal people wrong to take their politics into literature? The logic of the argument being made here is that, yes, they were — but surely no-one’s actually going to come out and say that.
        So, to reiterate Rjurik’s question, if were having this discussion in, say, 1972, how should we respond to a newly politicised generation of women writers? What, concretely, would we say? To me, the answer’s obvious. You declare your political solidarity with the movement, and you throw your pages open to make room for the debates within it, so that the various literary schools within the movement can argue their cases.
        But if you take the position being argued against us seriously, it would imply, at best, a lofty indifference, as if this political and aesthetic ferment was neither here nor there. To be honest, a magazine that took such a position would be left behind.
        In any case, some of the statements go further than that. Daniel, for instance, gets a ‘shiver down his spine’ at the idea of people being asked to produce fiction that is somehow an offshoot of their political engagement. Would he seriously have said that in 1972? Would he have argued to women writers whose fiction was being consciously shaped by their political involvement that this was wrong and that they should stop it at once? If not, why not?

        1. Not formally conservative modes like social realism but feminism was on the cusp of a utopian moment of social transformation and also crucial to the development of an emergent postmodernism with its emphasis on difference, identity and such. I suspect assessments of the aesthetic results of the latter would be mixed, perhaps even decried as conservative in some quarters. In any case, I would question whether political and aesthetic innovation go together in the way being suggested here — there are never guarantees of course, but often great art results from massive disappointment, and sometimes massive social disappointment. And maybe this disappointment is closer to the situation that we currently find ourselves in. It’s not 1972 and the notion of basing a program on what you might do if it was 38 years ago seems itself somewhat idealist. It could also be argued (couldn’t it?) that politically we look to defence of art as a kind of place marker that seeks to resist total incorporation rather move immediately to subsuming it to a political program.

          1. Yep – I suppose that’s why I wrote: “What continuing these kinds of traditions means today is obviously a matter for debate, if you’re interested in developing an engaged culture.” That’s the debate we’re discussing at Overland at the moment. In the past, Overland editors saw grunge fiction/dirty realism as a radical literary movement. In any case, social movements, and artistic movements, can’t be just invoked out of thin air. As a result, Overland is unlikely to pick any particular form or mode of writing (though this would be mainly up to Jane, so I don’t want to preempt anything she’s planning) to champion. But that doesn’t mean we won’t encourage a broader political and aesthetic project.

          2. I think that’s wrong as an account of the development of postmodernism, which owed much more to the kind of identity politics that came out of the defeat of the social movements, the middle-classing of their activists and the implementation of that New Left ‘long march throught the institutions. (Actually, this is not unrelated to the argument about academic creative writing).
            Yes, that’s an oversimplification, yes, great art can arise from social disappointment, but we are talking in very borad terms here. IMO, it’s just historically undeniable that women’s liberation fostered a flurry of new and exciting literature, which is all that’s necessary for my point.
            No, we shouldn’t base our program on the events of 1972, and I thought I made clear in the original post that we’re not in a similar situation today, which is why most of our concrete interventions into the area are pretty damn low level. But throughout this discussion, there’s been an unanalysed assumption that the paradigm for politics and literature should be the 1930s. Which is just weird. Actually, socialist realism emerged in historically unparalleled circumstances (on the one hand, the systematic destruction of the Left Opposition and the artistic avant garde, and then the need for a consolatory literature during the ‘quicksand society’ of the Stalin revolution; on the other, the mainstreaming of the international communist movement during the Popular Front). To use that very particular experience to determine a general attitude to political literature is just perverse. That’s why the history of feminism matters in this debate, as a much more recent example, and why I think it’s a fair question to ask exactly how people would have responded to the upsurge in feminist writing. To be consistent, those arguing against us would have had to advise radicalised women not to reflect their political commitments in their fiction. Is that really what they think?

          3. But worth really emphasising is that the feminist movement placed an equal (if not greater) weight on developing a new form of criticism and critique; it’s not as if writers suddenly started thinking about feminism and great new books magically appeared. New publishers sought to produce such works, people formed new networks of (often informal) distribution, the new feminist critique enabled the reception of these works, and–lest we forget–a huge investment was made in ‘rediscovering’ authors that could be recuperated by feminist criticism (eg. Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson). So, again, I think the focus on authorial intent is misplaced here.

            Ultimately, I agree that both ‘what if’ scenarios aren’t very useful though: we’re not in 1972 anymore than we are in 1927 in the USSR.

  15. As the man said: \Art begins with abstract decoration with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.\ Wilde, The Decay of Lying

    1. But this is still ducking the question, isn’t it! In 1972, there were scores of major novelists who were inspired by the movement to write novels exploring feminist themes. Was this political writing something to be encouraged or discouraged? I say the former; if you are consistent, the whole force of your argument pushes you to the latter, to argue that, at best, such consciously feminist writing was misguided and, at worst, it was actually harmful.
      To me, that in and of itself is an illustration of how untenable the case is.

        1. My take on this is that those interested in social change would indeed be encouraging political writing in those circumstances, BUT that this would be insufficient if you took art as seriously you take politics. Such a call on its own would just as likely to produce failed art as well as successful art and I assume that both of these things happened in 1972. Actually, come to think of it, there were all sorts of harmful or misguided things happening in that period as a result of various forms of moralism, overconfidence, dogmatism and so forth (as well as the wonderful and inspiring things) so why wouldn’t you think that this had an effect on the art of that time?

          There is a whole air in this discussion of ‘what is the big deal’ or ‘would you or wouldn’t you?’ that suggests these are straight-forward questions and actually society is not riven be really intractable and difficult divisions and contradictions. It’s as if we’ve worked it all out regarding the politics of aesthetic form or the status and function of art in relation to social change. These are not things to be discussed at some point after the call to be more engaged writing but of equal moment to any such call. The call on its own begs so many questions that I’m not at all surprised all if people want to stop a second and work out the implications of this.

      1. As a preamble, I think the problem is that OL is asserting something (the desire for a political fiction and the ethical obligation to write such fiction), whereas I’m arguing for a set of possibilities that I’m hesitant to define and delimit. I suppose I’m arguing for ‘literariness’ as you noted, and for a cultural space for complex, rhetorical acts recorded in writing, but I don’t (unlike OL) want to legislate what ‘literary’ texts will look like (although I obviously have baises and preferences). There’s even a further problem with all of this as regards this debate, too, of course, which is that, for me, ‘literariness’ also transcends genre (and much ‘genre’ writing is ‘literary’ in my conception, as is much non-fiction). One of the reasons that I’m not simply a pomo relativist is because I hold that there is a distinction between textuality and literary textuality as such.

        To your question, my reply would be to say that a literary novel ‘exploring feminist themes’ wouldn’t ONLY be a feminist novel. We could read A.S. Byatt’s novel ‘Possession’ in feminist terms, certainly, but we could also read it as being a novel ‘about’ writing and authorship (since it’s literally a novel whose plot is based on letters, diaries, etc.), or ‘about’ ownership and property etc. It wouldn’t necessarily be the case that one of these readings would be more ‘true’ than others (although, again, this doesn’t mean anything goes).

        Moreover, just because an author intends something (and the notion of artistic intent is really problematic, and arguably unknowable, even to authors–a known unknown, if you will) doesn’t mean the text will reflect that intent (which is certainly true of bad authors, but often even true of good ones. I love Robert Walsser, but I’m not sure he had any clue what he was doing).

        Even worse, an author may intend something, and the text may reflect that intent, but there may not be a receptive community to read it. Let’s presume Kate Chopin intended ‘The Awakening’ to be a feminist text, and that the text lends itself to such a reading; the problem is that in the U.S. south in 1899 there was no audience who was receptive to such an intent (if, indeed, that’s what it was), and the novel could only be recuperated after the appearance of an openly feminist criticism. This raises a further question: is ‘The Awakening’ a feminist text, or, rather, did the feminist movement itself create a feminist version of ‘The Awakening’ by applying that critical lens to an obscure work?

        1. I suspect we’re probably reaching the point of diminishing returns with this, and we should perhaps agree to disagree.
          But, while the position you are arguing now is better than the one in KYD, you are still extending critical commonplaces way beyond their actual weight. Yes, intentionality is problematic, in that authors can’t control the meanings of their texts, can’t stamp their books with a final authority. But that doesn’t mean that authorial decisions are irrelevant, which is sometimes what you seem to be implying. Obviously, the fact that Howard Fast decided to write about Spartacus rather than Caesar matters, even as we accept that the readings of his novels might escape or contradict his stated purpose. After all, if that were not the case — if intentionality were entirely irrelevant — this entire debate would be pointless, since whatever we wrote would be — by definition — incapable of shaping unwritten texts in any way whatsoever.
          And I don’t think the theoretical slippage here is accidental. That is, the biggest problem with the tenor of your argument is its passivity. You say you are arguing for ‘a set of possibilities that I’m hesitant to define and delimit’. But how does that translate into an editorial policy, which is, after all, where this argument began?
          The position above implies a kind of criticism that passively interprets existing texts. But that’s not what a journal — or, for that matter, an editor or writer — does. As soon as you establish a literary journal, as soon as you start accepting submissions, you have to be able to answer: what are you looking for? What is the point of your publication? Why do we need another journal? Why should writers send their work to you and not elsewhere?
          Which means definition and delimitation.
          The fact that so many people in the small press scene don’t publish manifestos, don’t make their criteria public, doesn’t stop such decisions being made. It just means that they’re made on an untheorised or unarticulated basis.
          Again, I’m not suggesting that Overland should be championing a particular school of writing (though in some circumstances that might be appropriate). But the hostility directed to our stated preference for politically engaged writing (understood as a broad term, with all the caveats that have emerged in this discussion) seems misplaced, since everyone is making similar judgments, just not explicitly.
          (In passing, that’s why I think framing the argument in the context of a major political movement like early women’s liberation is useful, since it highlights the fact that everyone in publishing then had to make decisions as to where they stood on the new, politically engaged writing.)
          I think in one of these threads, you said that your personal preference was for experimental, high-literary writing (forgive me if I’ve got that wrong — there’s been a lot of water under this particular bridge!). Well, that would be a useful thing to publicly champion as a fiction editor in Australia. But you would then immediately face the same charges that have been implicit in the arguments that have been made us against us: how dare you tell writers what to write, stifle open creativity, etc, etc.

          1. Yes, I quite agree Jeff – that essentially what Overland is doing is attempting to define and delimit a scope for its fiction in the same way that it does for its non-fiction. And the fact that both positions happen to relate to political engagement seems entirely consistent, and true to OL’s history, and I’m surprised that it should be so contentious.

            When you say Emmett that ‘OL is asserting something (the desire for a political fiction and the ethical obligation to write such fiction)’ I would like to counter, speaking purely as OL fiction editor and not on behalf of any other OLanders, that what I am calling for (not asserting, it’s a quibble but really, I’m issuing an invitation and I’d like it to be seen as I intend it) is for those writers who are already or dream of writing political fiction to send their stories to OL, where they will be welcomed.

            As for ‘The Awakening’, for me it takes nothing from the power of the text itself if we define it as a feminist text or as one feminism has picked up because it’s so open to feminist readings. The question is an interesting aside, but it doesn’t change the fact that the novel itself is clearly about one woman’s search to define her self beyond her roles of mother, wife, sister, daughter, Christian, having become aware of unanswered longings in her deepest and sexual being. Such searches would later come into the terrain of feminism.

            Literary history is littered with such examples: ‘Moby Dick’ (1851) fell by the wayside until picked up by the Modernists in the 1920s.

            And with examples of texts open to many readings. The so-called first modern novel, ‘Don Quixote’ was first read as a comedy, then as a mock epic in prose, Dostoyevsky called it ‘the saddest book of them all’; the German Romantics saw Don Quixote himself as a tragic hero, for Revolutionary France he was a doomed visionary and in the Soviet Union, the ideal rebel anti-capitalist hero. Cervantes intended his novel as a spoof of the pulp fiction of his day, the tales of chivalry. And he engages with the ‘issues of his day’. The thing is, when this is done in any art at the highest level, it transcends its day and speaks to all times.

          2. I see this debate very differently: to me, curatorial strategies and lit. journals (from Genoways’ piece onwards) are being used as a pretext to discuss ideas of literature, not the other way around. Curatorial strategies are, in fact, part of the mediation of a text–part of its dissemination. I don’t expect editors to be ideologically (or logically) consistent, any more than I expect that of authors, and in this sense, I approve of Jane’s approach.

            Our disagreements (and I agree we are going around in circles at this point) are around the big picture notions of literature, of the concept of literature, which, to me, OL invoked from the beginning by discussing writers’ “ethical imperatives” (which sounds like a Kantian-type claim). There’s a big difference between claims about strategies and claims about literature as such, and a bigger difference between preferences and imperatives.

            Regarding authorial intent, I think it’s too easy to pretend that the hard cases are the special cases. The reason I’ve raised the issue, is that, to me, OL seems to be fetishizing authorial intent, when in reality literary production is a much more complex set of interactions. Jane unintentionally offers a great example of why this problem is important in her comment below: her description of the changing understandings of the Quixote actually contradicts her claim that “The Awakening” is “clearly about one woman’s search to define her self . . .” That may seem clear now, but may not in 20 years, which is exactly why intention is so problematic (and invoking the “timelessness” doesn’t solve anything).

            As to why OL is so focused on authors, I suspect that a covert notion of artists as ‘decadent’ is still basically operating here (and this bias is also why people keep raising the issue of Soviet art, even if it is ultimately unfair). There’s another contradiction, in that OL’s placing an ethical burden on authors actually ignores the social, material realities of how literature is produced. In this sense, OL’s call for writers to write about a more urgent reality is based on something that I would see as a fiction.

            I agree that none of my positions are exactly new (my points about intent are at least as old as Foucault’s ‘What Is an Author?’), but I also think that, in recent history, academics haven’t been very good at explaining these theoretical concepts to non-specialists. There’s much work to be done here, and I see this as part of that.

            Lastly, on experimental literature, it would be hard for me to articulate my preferences; I claim a preference for the experimental, but certain experimental forms (e.g. language poetry, ficto-criticism) hold absolutely no interest for me. And I like more “traditional” forms, too (my book, for example, is more traditional than experimental, although that work is all at least five years old).

    2. “Ultimately, I agree that both ‘what if’ scenarios aren’t very useful though: we’re not in 1972 anymore than we are in 1927 in the USSR.”

      Quite right. We are in 2010 witnessing the rapid decline of one empire and the rise of another.
      It is absolutely essential that writers of fiction engage with the stories arising from the tectonic shifts in geopolitics, which is not say the telling of those stories should conform to an idelogical paradigm. I object to reflexive references to post revolutionary Russian literature by those who oppose socially engaged fiction. Get over it. You are using the same lazy argument as those who call Obama a socialist. The fact is, we don’t know what the emerging political alternative will look like. It is evolving in response to a badly decayed hegemony and it brings with it a refreshed notion and practice of writing. Relativism may under the sway of new iteration yet to find form.

  16. Re the introduction of Oscar Wilde: it’s interesting how Wilde’s politics and art were expressed as art for art’s sake. But isn’t art for a political radical art in opposition to the state (‘the greyness of the Victorian era’)? As such, can it really be summed up as art for art’s sake?

    As an aside, why when an artist says something about their work does it become hallowed?

  17. Hi Emmett – I agree with you and Jeff that this is beginning to go around in circles etc, and I don’t want to prolong it. But just on ‘The Awakening’ – OK, perhaps I’m using the language of the present by using ‘self’ to describe it, but I was simply wanting to describe the bare bones of its narrative: is about a woman who is exploring new ways of living beyond the confines of marriage and the structures decreed for her by her times, in the same way that ‘Don Quixote’ is about a deluded man on a scrawny nag riding off to right wrongs centuries after the age of chivalry, accompanied by his earthy friend. These are the bare narratives. But how we read them, how we interpret them, is open to the times and whatever theories are lying around. (Incidentally, I discovered Chopin on my own reading adventures, not in the context of a university course in feminist literature or anything else.)

  18. But, of course, the plot or narrative of a book when so synopsised is itself an abstraction–a reduction, (and, in a sense, a reading), a list whose selection requires an exclusion–rather than an inherent quality of a text. I know, I know, these kids of shorthand, practically speaking, are necessary, but what we see is what we see, not necessarily what’s there.

    Years ago I was in a russian lit. class and the professor asked us to analyse Anna Karinina’s recurrent dream. A roomful of hands went up, and then he said, ‘And keep in mind this was written prior to Freud, so I don’t want a Freudian reading.’ All the hands suddenly went down, because it’s almost impossible for most of us in the contemporary world to conceive of dreams outside of the language of psychology, the unconscious etc.

  19. Yes Emmett – sprung badly! I thought exactly that after I’d posted the comment. Point conceded. (Laughing here.) And I like your example.

    1. Look, I’m as sick of this now as everyone else but the comment at 11.51 deserves some response. Emmett says:
      ‘OL seems to be fetishizing authorial intent, when in reality literary production is a much more complex set of interactions.’
      But of course that’s precisely the point I made (at great length, in fact) in the post that heads this thread. The whole OL project is predicated on the interaction between culture and society, far more so than any other journal (or institution) in the country, and it’s simply not fair to say that we ignore the social, material realities of how literature is produced. Indeed, the very idea of OL, from its earliest days, has always been to contribute to a progressive infrastructure and a progressive readership in order to foster progressive writing.
      The reason why intentionality has come up so much is because this is a debate around the attitudes of journals (Overland, Virginia Quarterly Review, Harvest, KYD) and, as I said before, every journal has to deal with the issue. What kind of fiction do you commission? What kind of fiction do you encourage?
      You can’t launch a polemic on that topic (that was, after all, how this all began), and then dismiss the issue by saying you don’t expect editors to be ideologically consistent (well, you can, I guess, but it’s very annoying).
      Indeed, it’s that which makes this debate so difficult to resolve: after attacking us on a specific question, Emmett consistentnly retreats to abstractions rather than respond to similar questions put to him. Yes, we know that feminist novels might be capable of different (even contradictory readings) but simply pointing that out doesn’t provide an answer to the concrete question: how should editors and critics have reacted to the desire of radicalised women to reflect their radicalisation in their writing?
      For the life of me, if he’s to be consistent, I can’t see how Emmett can avoid making the same response to the injunctions that led to the whole wave of feminist writing as he did to the Genoways piece, since the argument’s structurally the same.
      Emmett says: ‘Just because an author intends something (and the notion of artistic intent is really problematic, and arguably unknowable, even to authors–a known unknown, if you will) doesn’t mean the text will reflect that intent (which is certainly true of bad authors, but often even true of good ones.’
      OK, that’s facilely true but what follows from it? Are we really to conclude that it’s undesirable — perhaps even impossible — to intervene into any contemporary literary debate, since history may eventually prove our interpretations wrong?
      At best, this is a simple category error (a basic confusion of different levels of abstraction); at worst, it amounts to a ferociously right-wing aesthetic which would see you on the wrong side of almost every important recent literary movement. When, for instance, black writers were insisting on the importance of Aboriginal stories, how would you, if you adhered to the argument above, not end up saying say, well, I can see what you are intending, but your texts may not reflect that intent, so your calls for black literature amounts to Philistinism, etc, etc,
      I guess Emmett might argue that the creation of a radical black literature also involved the construction of an infrastructure to support it: publishing houses, bookshops, sympathetic critics, etc. Fine. I entirely agree. But it still doesn’t answer the question: on the basis of all you’ve been arguing, what do you say to Aboriginal writers who want a literature that reflects their struggles and their lives? If they’re not Philistines for wanting that, why is Genoways?

  20. Your piece did discuss the larger issue of literary dissemination/reception, but that’s the first time in this discussion OL has raised this issue in a systematic way (while I’ve been noting it all along). I also think there’s been an excess of criticism directed at writers from the OL side.

    I don’t see a correlation between the notion of a (still ill-defined) “politically engaged” literature and the above social movements you keep referencing. I’m certainly not against authors attempting to write feminist literature or intending to write with a political purpose–nor am I against reading works through a political lens (as I noted in KYD). But I also don’t think the feminist movement put all writers under an ethical obligation to write feminist works. And while authors can intend to write feminist works, that also doesn’t mean readers necessarily will (or should) read them according to that intent. To me, literature and literary interpretation is far more complex than the OL position allows for. It was, after all, this slippery and morally ambiguous nature of literature that lead Plato to cast the poets out of the ideal republic.

    1. Emmett,

      I think you may find that a core part of the feminist movement put writers under an “ethical obligation” not to write sexist or misogynist fiction. I think you’ll find that they actively called attention to it as politically objectionable. Whatever you think of it or its specific readings, for example, Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics” did just this. That may not exactly be the same as an ethical obligation to write feminist fiction – depending on how that is defined – but it’s pretty close. Again I ask, what should Overland’s position be if we received a racist, sexist or homophobic piece which was brilliantly conceived or written? If we rejected it – as we would – isn’t that simply a case of putting writers under an “ethical obligation”? Isn’t it simply an inverted way of saying that we have a political-fictional project? In inverted way of arguing for engaged fiction?

      You introduce the question of authorial intention and reception in what seems to me a pretty specious fashion. Writers don’t always end up conveying what they intended (and indeed, if we are to judge a text on its own, what they intended is pretty irrelevant (i.e. Death of the Author arguments, proposed also by Althusser and Macherey), just as readers go through a process of interpretation of the text (i.e. Reception Theory). But neither of these points contradicts the positions put by Overland editors, nor upholds your “complex” theory.

      I might also note that the suggestion that you make that you have a “complex” theory, whereas we have “uninterrogated” ideas a pretty unproductive mode of argument; I might just as easily say, “We have a complex argument because we assert a relationship between social, political and aesthetic but you have an ‘uninterrogated’ postmodern position.” Seems better to assume that our positions are not so much complex versus simple but rather simply different, no?

  21. I have some thoughts about the politics of literature but will leave that for another day of procrastinating from writing my decadent novel.
    Jeff, I’ve really enjoyed reading your piece alongside Rjurik’s essay on creative writing programs in the recent Overland. What if we view creative writing programs as workplaces and as sites for the sort of political involvement and praxis that you encourage? I have a lot to say about this after working as a casual teacher in a prestigious creative writing program a couple of years ago. My very straightforward questions about our obscure and unfair marking contract eventually led to a successful campaign by casual creative writing teachers for improved conditions (unfortunately the campaign also led to retaliation against some casuals involved: number of tutorials cut, not hired following semester, etc etc) Faculty in the department split over this issue along lines that were surprising to many involved. The NTEU supported the campaign but still has a way to go to deal with the fact that more and more of its (potential) members will be casuals in the future.
    Creative writing is growing as an academic discipline in the context of a marked turn towards a concept of education as a commodity, students as consumers, and universities as efficiency-driven corporations, as Rjurik points out. This means that more of us writers will be working at teachers – mostly as exploited, vulnerable casual labour. Casual work suits writers who want to retain writing as their primary profession but it has its downsides. As universities move towards further cost-cutting and ways to increase their revenue from students we can expect more struggles over working conditions for casual teachers.
    Most of us will work as casuals if we teach creative writing but I think it is also essential to support the protection of academic tenure for the core teaching faculty and to resist the increasing casualisation of academic labour across all disciplines. There are important conversations to be had about what should be taught in creative writing courses and how much they ought to focus on helping students make their work marketable, or foster experimental aesthetic forms, or assist artists in expressing their own voice, or be theory-heavy or whatever. But if we even want to be in a position to have these arguments heard and to have a real say in curriculum content and assessment structures we need greater protection for casual teachers alongside the academic freedom and involvement in university governance that only tenure can provide.

    1. Kirsten,

      Yes, I agree. In my piece I originally had a longer section (which we cut for space reasons) on creative writing courses as sites of struggle, especially from the point of view of the teachers, who seem to be doing most of the struggling at the moment.

  22. But that doesn’t answer anything.
    OK, you’re not against authors attempting to write feminist literature. But were calls for women to write feminist literature mistaken (the correlation is precisely that every social movement made such calls) ? Would you have denounced a manifesto urging more feminist novels? If not, where’s the difference today?

    1. Oops. That crossed over with Kirsten’s post. It’s obviously intended as a reply to Emmett.
      On Kirsten’s point, yes, I totally agree. I’ve actually got a forthcoming essay on exactly that: the need for organisation in these courses. And there was a very interesting, albeit grim, account of the zombification of the university that raises similar points.

    2. I’m not interested in answering your question, since it (in a favourite trick of right-wing pundits) sets up a dichotomy whereby I either a) agree with OL’s claim or b) oppose the feminist movement. I choose neither of those options. I support the feminist movement and still hold my positions on art. Moreover, I don’t know which particular feminist arguments you are discussing. There’s 40 years of feminist theory–which might be better called feminist theories–and it’s not something that can be asserted as a unitary discourse and then negated or affirmed. Nor has this been a debate over feminism, but rather over OL’s ill-defined notion of ‘political engagement’ in literature.

      If you are asking whether I think it is possible for literature to contain elements that I find politically objectionable, then the answer is indubitably yes–unless, of course, you think Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” isn’t literature. I believe Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is a right-wing allegory, but I still liked the book (though I didn’t love it). J.M. Coetzee is a great writer in my opinion, but he’s gotten a bit of a pass on his portrayals of women, which in some books (e.g. “Diary of a Bad Year”) tend to represent them as two-dimensional objects without seeming to be very reflexive about this fact.

      But more importantly, your question presumes a dichotomy (as, indeed, virtually all of OL’s argument do) between feminist and sexist portrayals, but surely a book could be BOTH feminist AND sexist (or else undecidably either)? Christine Froula argues as much in her reading of Eve in “Paradise Lost”; she asserts that Milton was sexist, but that his portrait of Eve is unintentionally feminist due to the ambiguities of the language in the text. Fredric Jameson reads Wyndam Lewis’s novels as reflecting a “proto-fascist” ideology, but then argues that Lewis’s books are interesting because they also “contain their own critique”, making them simultaneously works of fascism and a criticism of fascism.

      Why are we stuck with art as an either/or? Why are we still pretending that intent determines everything? Why is OL so invested in tying art down to discrete meanings and making it little more than an adjunct of ethics (which is actually a liberal rather than a radical position) or politics?

      1. Again, all of that is obvious but still misses the point.
        You initiated the debate by insisting that demands for political art were inherently backward, that anyone who suggests that literature should ‘engage with real issues’ or ‘think more about content’ was a complete and total Philistine.
        If you agree now that this is not the case when it comes to (at least some) calls for women to engage with feminist issues or feminist content, well, there is obviously scope for other movements to do the same thing.
        In that case, we could have a productive discussion as to what form such calls might take in 2010, and the various innovative ways that writers might engage with today’s issues and the contents of today’s struggles.
        On the other hand, if (as seems to be the case) your idiosyncratic views on art prevent you from accepting on principle the validity of attempts to generate political writing (on the basis, it seems, of the entirely unexceptional observation that contradictory textual readings are always possible), the discussion of feminism illustrates what’s at stake. Irrespective of your personal political sympathies, you would have to denounce those editors calling for books engaging with feminist issues and feminist content as ‘complete and utter Philistines’, in just same way as you denounced us.
        If that’s an uncomfortable position, well, that’s not our fault.
        But, look, this is now generating more heat than light, and we are both losing our tempers. I’ve got other things to do and I imagine you do, too.
        Let’s move on, and perhaps we can talk about it over a beer some time. 🙂

        1. I don’t agree with your point, but I do agree that it’s time to move on. And, yes, beer and discussion in the future! And thanks to you and the other editors for putting up with me being arguably the world’s most annoying internet troll.



          1. I think it’s been brilliant: thought provoking, frustrating, instructive and fun, so thanks Emmett. cheers, Jane GW PS I also think I could continue our argument/debate over ‘narrative’ v interpretation but intend to split no more hairs here.
            And thanks too Jeff for addressing the questions raised in Emmett’s, Genoways’ and Jacinda’s original post so very comprehensively and lucidly here.

  23. Rjurik: I really liked your piece. Yes, casual work is as you know pretty tough in lots of ways and when teachers are so vulnerable semester to semester it is really difficult to get motivated to even ask what you are actually being paid per essay, and so on, which is basically what I did.
    Jeff, I’ll look forward to reading your essay. and yes, I did enjoy the epic zombie simile in the Oz!

  24. I’ve been trying to find a way to succinctly express my response to this debate or, more specifically, to the part of this debate which revolves around the obligation of authors to address particular issues. And I am still struggling, because my responses are essentially paradoxical.

    I have an enormous amount of respect and, indeed, gratitude, for the editorial direction and focus of Overland since its inception. That gratitude is firmly based upon Overland’s stated biases and purposes which I do think give it a unique and important place in Australian thought and Australian literature.

    It seems to me that this long conversation about engaging contemporary issues is, really, not new at all. The current “demand” is what has always been demanded and I don’t find it in any way contentious. In fact, I applaud it. I echo it.

    At the same time, however, I don’t find the more, let’s say, historic viewpoint from Emmett Stinson in anyway objectionable. Overland has a role to play in both the making of history and the making of literature, or, at the very least, in how we will come to understand those things, later, in relation to this era we live in.

    Essentially, it plays – it is playing, in this debate – an active part in creating that new critical eye, just as (to continue the most fruitful example) feminist criticism played its role in the “creation” of feminist literature. Stating this imperative NOW is a part of that. It should be stated. It needs to be stated.


    Choose your conjunction – And or But… Writers need to ignore it.

    At a minimum, in my opinion, writers will try to ignore it.

    Writers are always “too” something or “not enough” something. More intimacy is demanded of us, or more distance. Society requires more symbolism. Or more realism. Or more anger. Or more peace. More humour, more darkness, more arrogance, more humility, more pain, more joy… The list is endless.

    This debate is important. I really believe that it is. But I think perhaps that when history makes its ruling, it will be considered more important in the shaping of a platform and an audience than in the shaping of the writer. It is the readers – that bloody awful “market” – saying, “Yes, I want that too,” which is crucial.

    We who write live in the same world Overland does and – to speak only for myself although I do not believe I am alone – I share the same hungers.

    I cannot, however, carry everyone’s hunger with me to my keyboard. To do so would essentially cripple me. Whether the words come too easily or too painfully, whether they feel chthonic and cathartic, or laboured and inadequate, the burden I already place upon myself is hard enough to bear without the added weight of this conversation.

    Which is to say, really, that I think this conversation already exists within the writer. Or, at the very least, I believe it already exists within the writers Overland seeks to champion.

    Quite frankly, it is possible that my own burden – this burden which Overland is supposedly placing on “me” – will mean that there will never be a word of mine in print. If so, it will not be because the imperative was stated, but because I was not adequate to the task.

    It is highly likely that I am not this generation’s Stendhal. What I do trust, however – to find some succinctness at last – is that someone will be.

    And when they are found, it won’t be because they heeded this conversation. It will be because of their ability to write in spite of it.

  25. This thread should be made available to any university or Tafe that has creative writing, literature, literary criticism and/or cultural studies on its curriculum!

  26. Yes beer sounds good. And I should have included you too Rjurik among those who Jeff responds to in this post.

  27. I’m in Cambodia at the moment with rather sporadic internet so I’ll save a full reply to many of these issues (the role of the universities and their connection with neo-liberalism, the question of what “engagement” and looking outward might mean, whether there is anymore a privileged form for writing fiction with political intent, whether the novel or short fiction is even a viable form for a protest or dissident position or interrogation) until I am in Melbourne again.

    Although it’s been covered, somewhat, I’d like to take up once again the notion that Overland would like to promote or find “social realism”. Having been involved with Overland since the start of 2007 and spent many years choosing, editing and commissioning our short fiction, I would go so far as to say that not only have we not attempted to prioritise the socialist realist form but that we’ve gone out of our way to do the opposite. One of my goals was to broaden the literary forms we publish so that we are choosing a fuller range of styles and forms in the fiction. I think there is a fair argument that we have published just as much, if not more than, speculative fiction than other literary journals. We’ve published realist work, sure, but also forms of sf and fragmented, self-interrogating modernist pieces as well. I’ve taken a very broad view of the notion of engagement in fiction so that, for example, the politics of private life are examined, or the war industry and pharmaceutical power is explored through futuristic works like Tim Richards’ pieces. We’ve looked at corporate power, space, alienation, hunger, excess, sexual exploitation, loneliness, dissociation, commodification and many, many other things. I think the days are well and truly gone where you could characterise Overland fiction as “social realism”. We’ve had a very broad number of forms represented, from science fiction to comic writing, to works in the second person, to pieced-out vignettes. And then we’re about to publish a suite of writers under thirty. We’ve experimented, such as when we published an early draft of Tsiolkas’s The Slap, or when we ran the Melbourne Futures SF visions of the city supplement. It’s true that Jeff and I often get stuck in the question of what it means for a Left-wing journal to publish fiction and how to look at the problem of what exactly is the politics of fiction or politics and fiction in this day and age. But I think you’d be very hard-pressed to argue that there is any narrow line in the fiction selections. More when I have the chance to articulate my thoughts without fear of a power storm! Kalinda

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