There are so many implications built into the term ‘emerging writer’, many of them patronising and designed to reinforce a hierarchy of power. There’s a kind of infantilising regard built into the idea.
It’s become an incredibly popular term, even spawning its own literary festival, those weird dull circuses of marketing and despair.
One can be emerging or one can be emerged. These are our choices. The image is obviously meant to be a kind of pious reference to being born, like a butterfly from a cocoon. It’s a ludicrous image, and its bizarre that writers haven’t been able to come up with a more expansive metaphor. It brings to mind Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar and reminds me of those academics I used to encounter when I was a preschool teacher who insisted on describing work with children as ‘gardening among beds of flowers’.
In fact in early childhood education the term ‘emergent writing’ is used to describe a kind of writing that young children produce that mimics the conventions of the written word. It’s an odd term but early childhood education, believe me, is full of the weirdest terms imaginable, used to describe children’s states of mind. Actually children’s personal languages of handwriting can in my experience often be coherent orthographies in themselves, and occupy a fluid and transgressive and marginal space, that (a) adults don’t like much and that (b) could do with a lot more exploration.
We actually did this in a somewhat radical children’s centre I worked at, where the children routinely produced an infinite variety of symbols for representing language. We filled a room with a heap of Lowrey organs from the 1970s and began a dialogue with children that resulted in them inventing various forms of musical notation, a notation they used to invent and record dance, soundtracks for their favourite books, noises, sound effects, multiple notations that both created and became part of a rich traffic of signs and cross-fertilising symbols in which children interrogated each other and the world.
To be honest, the first image that came to mind when I was thinking on the term ‘emerging writer’ wasn’t The Very Hungry Caterpillar but the birth of the Uruk-hai in the film The Fellowship of the Ring. The Uruk-hai were the wizard Saruman’s magically-engineered monster warriors born out of a pit of slime, arriving in the world primed for one thing, to do what they are told.
The term ‘emerging’ is also clearly meant to indicate a process of ‘evolution’. It suggests a kind of parodic image of walking fish flopping around on a marshy shore or one of those t-shirts that show apes slowly becoming upright, finally becoming white adult males with iPods.
Of course the fact that the image of ‘emergence’ is such an inane one makes me suspect that it was dreamed up by either a university creative writing program, someone in marketing for a niche publisher, or the Australia Council. There’s something strangely bureaucratic about it, as if a government department were struggling to come up with a utilitarian but intimate term for the disabled: special needs, differently abled, etc.
If I consent to the label ‘emerging writer’ what is it that I have acquiesced to? What am I mouthing along with? It’s not as if it is a throwaway term. It has after all inspired an entire literary festival.
Clearly the term ‘emerging writer’ is serving a purpose. But for whom? Why do we even need the term at all? Is it a sign of failure to never ‘emerge’? There are many definitions of the term ‘emerging writer’ depending on where you go. If you are trying to squeeze some cash out of the Australia Council and get that stamp of government approval on the endpaper of your novel, then you need to have already published a book to meet the criteria of ‘emerging’.
If you self-publish via website then you can never emerge, and self-publishing doesn’t have the same status as being accepted and edited and distributed by a national publisher.
When we buy into descriptions of ‘emerged’ and ‘emerging’ this is the kind of fix we find ourselves in. The emerging-emerged continuum is a kind of duality that doesn’t leave a lot of space in-between. You can’t reject the idea, because in the world of the emerging-emerged you are therefore emerging.
Just as the site of children’s ‘emergent’ writing can be a place that adults see as a way-station on the road to becoming properly literate, so the assumption is that the ‘emerging’ writer’s goal is to be like the ‘emerged.’
Achieving print publication and all that is entailed in that is still the holy grail for writers. This is very, very odd, given that someone seems to have recently invented the Internet and the Internet has invented ebook readers and begs a truckload of questions, all of them uncomfortable and none of them complimentary. It seems to me to be only a matter of time before technologies allow us to print up our own books in well-made editions we can design ourselves. We’ll all be really be up shit creek then. How we will know who has emerged and who hasn’t? What space will publishers occupy? How will we police literature? How we will know who to give prizes to?
What is the space that literary writers are trying to occupy? In one sense it’s a very small space, randomly policed, densely populated. On the other hand, it’s true I think that because no-one cares about or reads poetry anymore, this is exactly the most interesting and enlivening time to be writing it. If you don’t have that thing so dear to entertainers, an ‘audience’, if no-one is policing you, critically speaking, except those who nobody takes any notice of, there is an enormous amount of freedom available. Marginality suddenly becomes a wide-open space. As always it was.
Nobody reads literary fiction much, at least not in its current formulations and modes of distribution, unless you’ve won a Booker or something. The other day I was talking to someone who has been writing for some years, who because of shyness and so on has never tried to publish. She said to me, somewhat shamefacedly, ‘I’ve never had any teaching or done a creative writing course or anything’, as though this was a mark of sin.
For writers ‘emergence’ has a subtext of failure, as though one will be forever stuck in a pit of emergent slime. But failure is greatly underrated, I think. Life is full of narratives at which we are supposed to succeed, and I wonder if narratives of success are themselves something of the problem. What is success and why is it even on the table? What is it about failure that is so contemptible or shameful? Who decides what success is?
It’s distressing to see so many good writers submitting themselves to the rapacious industrial machine of literary production and policing, shopping around their work through agents and so on. It grinds people down.
I don’t know about you, but really, when I get down to it and look at myself honestly, my whole life has been a failure. Perhaps things are different for you and life has been an uninterrupted series of meritorious achievements. It’s not just that I have never owned a Citroen CV, or wrote the humorous short story I’ve long thought of about those guys in RPG games who sell the magic axes and health potions. At least none of those things yet. There’s a whole raft of other failures that I would only admit under torture, as they’d certainly make me appear to be too emotionally damaged to write for Overland.
Is having your fiction accepted or rejected by literary journals actually a sign you’ve written something interesting? The answer has to be no. How could there be any other answer?
Just about everything in life comes down to a mix of luck and politics, and literary ‘success’ is no different. However, the narrative of meritocracy, a neoliberal narrative if ever there was one, says that there is something else outside of luck and politics, something that you are uniquely responsible for making happen. Failure then becomes a mark of shame, something you can’t get rid of, something that you did, like being caught masturbating in public.
The neoliberal narrative of success says that we succeed mostly because of natural talent assisted by a little luck. But just a little, enough for us to be able to demonstrate that we are favoured individuals in whatever kind of divine order you subscribe to. And if you believe in the narrative of meritocracy, you definitely have a belief in a divine order. Publishers say to this to writers all the time; that if you just keep trying eventually real merit will be recognised, because it always is. This is obviously delusional. The delusion of meritorious success looks like this:
the actual recipe for success, whether you’re what is patronisingly referred to as an ‘emerging’ writer or whether you’re Hilary Mantel, looks like this:
The neoliberal governments with which we have all become so disastrously familiar are all fond of the idea of meritocracy. Australia was colonised on the basis of meritocracy, and according to the first colonisers there were many self-evident reasons why they deserved the continent to use as they wish. The Aboriginal populations obviously weren’t using it properly. At best they were an emerging race; human like us but not yet sophisticated enough.
Australia can be characterised as the Land of Silence. There’s so much amnesia in the air it’s amazing we can remember our own names. If writing has the power to do anything it’s to engage the power of remembrance. A few years ago Breyten Breytenbach wrote, in an essay on Nelson Mandela, that if writers are not to become the ‘clowns and fools of those in power’ they need to ‘think of freedom of the mind as a constant and conscious attempt to unthink order and authority’.
Breytenbach might be right that creative writers need to use their minds to ‘unthink power and authority’. But to do that one needs not just an orientation to the idea that politics is wired into everything, but a kind of scepticism toward ideas and institutions that are presented as part of a natural order. The idea of ‘Whiteness’, for example, is not just one that presents a reworking of ordained structures and psychologies and pathological methods of oppression and identity construction, but also a way of re-inventing just about everything we do. And given that European ideas of knowledge, understanding, power and identity have really fucked the planet over on a scale that is truly mind-boggling, it’s highly unlikely that literature hasn’t been complicit in that.
Maybe emerging writers have the opportunity to be subversive writers in the way that the ‘emerged’ may not. Perhaps emerging writers could become people highly suspicious of literary meritocracies, and learn to value marginal states, unfinished business. Perhaps it’s not a sin against the natural meritorious order to never emerge. Perhaps the emerged need to learn to go backwards and find the obscurity from which they began. And perhaps a gathering for emerging writers needs to take more from Occupy than it does from the idea of the Writers Festival.
Getting published into print doesn’t have to be a utopia. In this increasingly bizarre and disastrous age, utopias are not something we need more of. Utopias of desire have been very much a European invention and desire’s politics is something we have critically ignored, as though desire, like Whiteness and the novel were unproblematic states.
The non-utopian political project is always an incomplete project. Perhaps we need to be warier than ever of the promises of utopias, future and nostalgic, and value the incomplete thing, the broken thought, the insecure unresolved present, the ordinary day, the threadbare achievement, and the emerging and unresolved state.
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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