What are writers good for?

Well it’s not like it’s self-evident. I mean if all the plumbers in the world vanished into a parallel universe, things would literally go to shit very quickly. Removing all the fiction writers from this plane of existence and relocating them to, say, the Dungeon Dimensions would probably make very little difference to anyone. If you think about it, being trapped forever in a universe crammed with monsters that have the ability to use the minds of others for their own ends is probably a fiction writer’s idea of paradise.

It’s tempting to believe that there are too many fiction writers in the world. Do we really need an infinite number of novels, short stories and other like objects? In fact, if I travelled back a few decades in the Time Machine I’m currently building in my study, and eliminated all fiction written in English after, say, 1970, would it matter that much? We’d still have Proust, Amos Tutuola, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Tove Jansson. And we wouldn’t have nearly all Booker Prize Winners, Infinite Jest, Stephen King and Possum Magic. Sounding like a better idea all the time, really. You know you want me to do it. I’d better get onto finishing my Time Machine as soon as possible. If Calvin can do it, so can I. So if your copy of Hilary Mantel goes missing, you’ll know I got it to work.

I sometimes wonder if fiction hasn’t given itself a bad name. To construct idiosyncratic stories of our lives has become a kind of premier neoliberal artform. Words are derided except as ways of convincing others that you are what you are not. In other words – and neoliberal words always have other unspoken words trawling behind them – words have become items either of advertising or of propaganda.

In these strange times the value of words is seen in what they can get you. They become part of the arsenal of conviction, where we attempt to convince others that we have what they need, we know what they need or we will bring to them what we say they need. We either lie with words, instruct with words or war with words.

It’s something of a worry, because language is all that we have and in many ways is what we are made of, even if we don’t always know or understand all the languages we speak.

All the languages used by writers and by readers, and by those who are interested in neither, are vulnerable to colonisation by the processes of commodification that have come to dominate even the most intimate of our relationships. How does one keep neoliberalism out of the bedroom? Or perhaps a better question is, what does neoliberalism look like in our intimate interactions? Not just between lovers, but between readers and writers.

What the neoliberal hypercapitalist project desires, apart from immortality, is the governance of souls. It’s well on the way to achieving this, by atomising social relationships and creating processes of self-governance, so that we become not much more than glove puppets of dominant political and cultural practices.

In all our relationships the neoliberal use of primitive ideologies to establish that governance have taken root. On the other hand, to begin to engage in a paranoid series of search and destroy missions to eliminate the reactionary elements within the psyche isn’t going to help. We can however build new languages with each other. As Jacqueline Rose once wrote – a quote I’ve used before: ‘Love lies in the guessing … in granting those we love the wildest imaginative and spiritual reach.’

This is not of course a mandate to put up with toxic relationships. The act of granting the reach that Rose suggests can be profoundly discomforting to others. It’s as if we say to them ‘Yes … And what else?’, or, more specifically, ‘Who else? Who else are you?’ This can often be why one party in an intimate relationship can be so good at giving gift-objects to the other. To avoid the ‘Who else’. And to avoid it by also making a demand: that the thing given, which is not really a gift, be repaid by some version of love that comes without too much curiosity.

So in a neoliberal world where politics don’t exist and drudgery is the condition we are tricked into accepting, what’s the point of writers, especially those who write the thing called ‘fiction’? Perhaps the point of writers is to dissent – and to dissent and to dissent. The writer could be the person who continually speaks of the ‘who else’, who allows for readers with the ‘wildest imaginative and spiritual reach’: readers who are not merely the end users of a product. The writer could be the person who foregrounds politics when he or she is writing, who treats literature as a version of the political.

Another way of putting this is that the writer can be the person who sings the Blues. And in conjunction with that the writer can be the person who, through their writing, disrupts the commodification of practices of exchange which have done so much to cripple the way we interact.

So what does it mean to sing the Blues, and how can writing be a gift, and why would it matter?

The Blues is the visceral expression of dissent, the acknowledgment that what we have historically done is inflict suffering on each other, largely because we prefer to take refuge in power. The Blues is also a lament, a continual working through of the process of mourning, an acknowledgment that so many of the losses we experience are unnecessary and the ones that aren’t are unavoidable. The Blues is an unambiguous articulation of the politics of suffering, a site of resistance.

The Blues carves out an irrevocable subjectivity in the place where subjectivity is despised, crushed and treated as waste. The Blues is a moment of recognition, a way we can fathom or recognise each other. Hearing the Blues in a place where we didn’t think the Blues could be gives us a blessed moment of relief: I’m not mad after all. I’m not consumed by paranoia. It is possible for people to speak and hear each other. It is possible to love something together with someone and for it not to go all to pieces before your eyes. I don’t have to be so dispirited.

The writer could be the person who in singing the Blues knows that to sing the Blues is to prioritise a dark politics of care, who sings of all the ways we have failed and succeeded to look after each other, and who knows in their Bluesy bones that that’s the purpose of political conversation. The writer who is preoccupied with the Blues knows that Western societies are dying on their knees and are becoming so psychologically impoverished that they now outsource practices of care to the most marginal participants or rapacious corporations.

One cannot sell the Blues. If you sell it, if you sing it to sell it, it’s not the Blues. I don’t know what Robert Johnson gave to the Devil in the year that turned him from a middling guitar player into a genius, but I bet it wasn’t his soul. It is uninteresting and somewhat beside the point to write for money or success. One can only write for free, transgressively, as though the act of writing could not be given any monetary value and stood outside the commercial arena where all things, even love and hate, can be bought and sold. Perhaps we could cultivate the label ‘writer’ as a term of insult, a marker of the market’s contempt, in solidarity with the despised and the marginalised.

The Blues doesn’t even need an audience. As many Blues singers know there’s something both redemptive and cathartic in singing when no-one else can hear. The Blues is the articulation of loneliness. Having someone listen is very different from having an audience. And the capacity to listen, a capacity not usually thought of as a political act, is not easily found. And a single listener is all that’s required. The giver of the gift only needs one Other to make the gift possible.

All you can do with the Blues is give them away. They belong to everyone anyway, and to try and own them is an act of madness. It would be like claiming ownership of rain. Anyone can write. It just depends on what you’re prepared to give up.

The thing about gifts is that you don’t get them back. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, we often try to give gifts that ensure we get something in return. Such a gift can demand that I be loved or be included, or that you acknowledge something or do something. The gift as demand, however coded, is then essentially a statement of my own desires, and it’s not unusual for us to give others, at appointed times, things we would like to receive ourselves. We not only want our cake and to eat it, but options on everyone else’s cakes too.

Can generosity be measured at all? What would be being measured anyway? If generosity is measured in objects, lets say dollars, does it matter how those dollars were earned? Does it matter what the intention was behind the giving? And if generosity is not in objects and the relative size or economic importance of those objects, then where is it?

From the viewpoint of the market the gift is potentially catastrophic. The gift must be transformed into an obligation that can never be repaid in full. In the morality of the market, to give something freely – say, succour to someone in great distress – violates an inherent law of reality. And perhaps that is what a paranoid fear of generosity is: an unthinkable dread that you might see yourself in the face of the other, in the wretched traumatised refugee.

Generosity as a transgressive event would involve a sense of obligation to foster that encounter, and because others are virtually infinite then our obligation could be infinite and so would our generosity have to be. I might realise not how much I am owed, but how much I owe and that my infinite obligation to others requires my neverending attention. For the paranoid practitioners of commodification, this would be a catastrophic event.

The nature of generosity is that it can’t be given of course; it can’t be transacted because you can’t purchase or sell generosity. A market economy of the emotions has no space for that which is freely given up or given away. The idea that something could be given away without thought of return, without agendas, spin or small print, is so transgressive in market terms as to be nonsensical.

This kind of transgression of commercial values can send everything a bit weird, like trying to recognise a garment that has turned itself inside out. Generosity is a fundamental, unmeasured, unaccountable exchange between human beings, and our lives are replete with and marked by such encounters. The billionaire who gives to charity may be only reminding us of the gobsmacking divide between rich and poor, and underpinning something creepily inhuman about generosity as a market transaction.

So the writer is the person who sidesteps and disrupts the law of the marketplace and resists the demand that even interior states be commoditised. The writer articulates transgressive states and publicly mourns even when he or she is joking, and dissents and dissents to all the ways we have found to enslave each other.

When people learn I spend a lot of my professional time talking to other people who have had violence done to them they often anxiously ask, ‘Isn’t that hard?’ Actually, it’s not. And it’s probably even the wrong question. It’s an immense privilege. But, like writing, it can give you strange dreams, and a strange and lonely interior knowledge, and do things to you that temporarily overwhelms language. One can step out into the street after the morning’s sessions thinking ‘They went surprisingly well’ and walk into a lamp-post, for instance.

But sometimes at the end of the day, walking down the laneway from my offices situated by a river that frequently floods, struggling for words to situate the stories I’ve been told against a backdrop of vicious hypercapitalist social structures and the callous policies of political parties, all I can think is that I never felt so much like … like … singing the Blues.

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

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

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

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  1. Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about the Blues A LOT because my house has recently (re)discovered Lead Belly. It was only with this rediscovery that I really heard (for example) these two songs:

    Now this ‘articulation of loneliness’ is haunting me.

  2. Leadbelly can be big on loneliness; see Goodnight Irene.
    Even when the subject of loneliness is not directly addressed, it’s still somehow there. I’ve got Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Nina Simone and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee on hi-rotation and they will saturate you in loneliness. It’s very illuminating. For someone who writes anyway.

    • Same for me with Nina Simone and Robert Johnson. You clearly have excellent taste so I’ll go find those others.

      Stephen, I was just thinking about how collaborative the Blues was or is when compared to (at least the perception of) writing. I think there’s something in the idea of singular authorship – a tenet of neoliberalism – and its contrast to dissent.

  3. If you haven’t heard the riff that Elmore James opens ‘Dust my broom’ with you haven’t lived. I mean it. Got to YouTube immediately.
    I wrote a while back, in a comments thread I think, that I think the model of editor of interventionist guide really sucks. I don’t see why two writers can’t collaborate, perhaps one doing the editing, and both constructing an idea of what ‘editing’ could be. I don’t understand why this can’t be a collaborative venture. Both could then be writers, working together. One would then have the opportunity to dissent with each other too. It’s crazy to me that writers don’t collaborate more, and that we have this hierarchical neo-liberal model of the policing of literature. I find it a bit repellent to be honest. I don’t think we’ve learned much from the Blues really. Personally, if fiction doesn’t sound like the Blues to me, I lose interest very quickly.

  4. Collaborative writing happens all the time in popular music; movies and dance usually are collaborative crerative processes. It also is absolutely usual practice in most academic science writing – papers have multiple authors, most of whom contribute something to the writing. So for all of the undoubted success of solitary fiction writing, I just don’t get why collaborative creative writing is (a) so rare, and (b) more or less frowned upon when it does happen… or am I wrong here??

    • Well, there’s the whole myth of solitary genius thing of course, but I guess it boils down to the fact that creative writers don’t think of what they do as a political act. You can see this in the recent debate at the Edinburgh Lit Festival, where a discussion about politics and lit between a whole slew of literary heavyweights became for the most part repetition of a series of the most inane arguments about keeping politics out of literature.

  5. On the Blues, contemporary Australian writing and collaboration: Try Sean M Whelan and Isnod, Still Waters, Graham Nunn & Sheish Money and Maxine Beneba Clarke & the People Tree…if I do say so myself :)…just for starters. Fiction writers? None. Who would you say is Australian fiction’s Leadbelly or Odetta?

    • Thanks for the heads up Maxine. I don’t read enough fiction any more to know who is singing the blues. You’d probably have a better idea than me. But I think it’s the way the production of literature is organised and policed that is so problematic and deadening.I don’t get why so many creative writers seem to think it’s ok.

  6. Thanks Jacinda. That’s very cool. We could exchange clips back and forth. I don’t know how to embed clips, but if I could maybe I’d go looking for something by Mose Allison. You know, even when Nina is singing a really dodgy song like ‘To love somebody’ she still makes it unforgettable.

  7. Stephen, do these writers exist?
    re: “The writer could be the person who continually speaks of the ‘who else’, who allows for readers with the ‘wildest imaginative and spiritual reach’: readers who are not merely the end users of a product.” AND “the writer is the person who sidesteps and disrupts the law of the marketplace and resists the demand that even interior states be commoditised. The writer articulates transgressive states and publicly mourns even when he or she is joking, and dissents and dissents to all the ways we have found to enslave each other.”

  8. I have no idea. The landscape doesn’t look promising. But it doesn’t mean they couldn’t exist. Or shouldn’t. Or won’t.

    • (Pre-coffee, I’m in a provocative mood…)

      Stephen, it’s at this point it feels like your politics implodes… just a whinge (about the problems) without a way (to a better way of doing it). Or do you seriously think there aren’t possibilities to pursue; ie, are we all doomed?

      Pitching an end to culture in 1970 would have me guess your exited puberty/early adulthood around that time. It’s a common trope, isn’t it?, to claim the best stuff happened in one’s youth, and everything since then is a poor slippage… (there’s a great quote to this effect by some intellectual, but I can’t remember enough of the words to google-find it.)

      • You’ll have to do better than that Luke. Or drink better coffee. And your timeframes are way out.
        I neither exited childhood puberty or anything else in 1970.
        1970 was about the time the Booker kicked off, something of a marker in the way that literature is produced and policed.
        I’m not positing a golden age prior to 1970. I’m merely inviting people to engage in a harmless thought experiment, and consider how important literature actually is, and what it is. Nothing bad will happen if you try it. If you imagine Jonathan Franzen disappearing, don’t panic, that won’t actually occur.

        • Okay, forget the 1970 thingo.
          But what about the issue of pointing out a problem vs suggesting other modes (where suggesting other modes of course would have to be done in ways that don’t invoke the structure of the very problem). I’m thinking of your work in the educational domain. You have said much about the problems, but you have in the past practiced other ways, and made some attempts to talk about / document / share something these other ways. Is it so much to think you might do the same in the literary domain?

          • btw, when were you born? it did really feel like you were between 18 (exit puberty, give or take a year or two) and 28 (exit youthful metabolism, give or take a year or two) in 1970, when I read this post. Maybe I’d like to know how ‘way out’ I was! 😉

  9. “…eliminating all fiction written in English after, say, 1970…” would, ironically, give the neoliberal writers you despise, Stephen, a politics and purpose for writing. Which makes me wonder who their “bluesmen and blueswomen” might be? Cole Porter, Ayn Rand, Scott Fitzgerald (and a suitable female songwriter eludes me at the moment)?

  10. Sorry Dennis, I’m not following your argument. Possibly because it’s late etc.
    My point was that even if we lost all fiction after 1970 the world would not be substantially changed, and there’d still be plenty of fiction etc to go round. Whereas plumbers etc etc…
    It’s just a conceit. I can’t actually travel in time. Not yet anyway. The time-machine isn’t finished.

    • I got the conceit okay – my point was so slight and flippant I don’t know why I’m going on with it – anyway, if politics doesn’t exist in a neoliberal world as you assert (other than an extreme right wing politics perceived as natural and God given) – the need for a politics would become apparent to neoliberal writers SHOULD they be denied the right to be political subjects and suffer oppression by having a sizeable part of their world eliminated.

      • Thanks for clarifying Dennis. I guess neolib writers are a privileged bunch and so unlikely to be too deprived of anything. And when they are, perhaps neolib narcissism turns the dispossession into an us and them battle; They did this to Me

  11. What’s with the Stephen King hating? Seems ironic to use the metaphor of time travel to summarily dismiss the author of 11.22.63. There’s a place for a great tale that drags the reader along like Cthulhu on steroids.

    That second paragraph made me smile. I made myself read all of In Search of Lost Time by disallowing any other book to be read before I finished the last volume. I must admit that it almost killed me. And when I did finish? I picked up the latest Stephen King, and it tasted as light as champagne. American champagne!

    • Alas, one could not list writers that everybody disliked. It was more of an invitation for people to think about accepted and even praised writers that they could do without.

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