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Pity the emerging writer – or not

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:

Chart 1

 

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:

Chart 2

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.

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. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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Comments

  1. In your whifflings about the semantics of ‘emerging’ you’ve drawn a false and completely cynical neoliberal teleology that COMPLETELY ignores the solidarity that many writers find in identifying and sharing their liminal, precarious state. You paint ‘emerging’ as an externally imposed, bureaucratic category and as a stepping-stone to complete political capitulation, when I and many of the writers I know see the term itself as a rejection of patronisingly definitive writerly career trajectories.

    To be ‘emerging’ is not to yearn for emergence; it’s to realise one is an outsider in the literary machine, and to be ambivalent about traditional measures of success. You can remain ‘emerging’ for years without ever having ‘emerged'; and you can gain support and reassurance from others that this is fine, this is legitimate, this is still being a writer.

    You also obviously know jack shit about the Emerging Writers Festival, having dismissed it as a marketing confection and as a mini-me of other (emerged) writers’ festivals. It’s actually one of just a handful of events in Australia that are staged for creators, not consumers. Participants come from incredibly diverse backgrounds, including self-publication from zines to podcasts, and many events are explicitly informal: that is, they’re about hanging out and meeting other writers.

    Much of the festival program addresses the lived experience of writing – the doubts, the barriers, the politics – precisely the things you identify as being under-addressed. The festival has also published several anthologies of very thoughtful essays grappling with just what it means to be an emerging writer. You, your non-creative-writing-studying friend and anyone else is welcome.

    • I’m wondering if we’ve read the same post, or if your rage is blinding you to the questions I’m raising; which are advocating for a liminal state. Maybe you’re just defending the Emerging Writers Festival – which I imagine is something of a contested space, where marketing and something more disruptive meet. It’s the disruption I’m interested in. It’s hard to tell actually. I think I got lost at ‘teleology.’

  2. Fishpond advised me today that “The Very Hungry Zombie ~ a parody. ” is now available for purchase.

  3. Without specifying it down to writing, the ideal of passion (or at least enthusiasm), talent and the economic value of labour coinciding in every individual is not confined to what gets called neoliberalism. It predates it, and it spreads wider to other organising social forces.

    It’s about on the same level as the ideal of romantic love. Most people will never experience a Tristan and Isolde true love that goes on forever, and most will never make money loving doing something they’re good at.

    In the case of literary fiction it’s rather obvious that many, even the majority of the canonised immortals an aspiring writer is invited to emulate were not commercially successful, were not publicly admired, were not wealthy, and did not “emerge” during the period of their greatest productivity.

    Many were bums, were banned, were considered to be cranks, left unpublished, or simply ignored, unknown or left to kill themselves. They are probably still there today like Stephen’s friend with no creative writing diploma.

    • It’s an interesting idea that the artistic meritocracy privileges mediocrity and that anyone with anything interesting to say exists in the liminal, wandering around, ignored.
      It’s not that there might be an undiscovered Shakespeare scribbling away in her garret somewhere, but that the idea of genius and artistic excellence isn’t even interesting. As my angry friend above pointed out, it’s more about finding ways to have some kind of disruptive and marginal conversations. Even in regard to an Emerging Writers festival, I wonder where the power lies and who gets to speak and who doesn’t, and where the margins are and who exists there, doing what.

  4. I’ve got to agree with you on this one as I’ve always disliked the term emerging such-and-suches without really understanding the emerging logic and mostly dismissed the term without giving it too much thought. It always struck me as a sort of parturition metaphor (or worse), without understanding which particular sperm or ovum enabled a writer to strike mother or father lode.

    Your failure point interests me too, as I’ve been listening to a lot of Tame Impala on and off for the last six months, mostly because they come from Perth, and because Kevin Parker who plays and sings every note on the albums, which he makes in his bedroom, sings about and makes much of what a failure he is and how socially incompetent he is and how he will never keep a girlfriend etc and traces this back to Perth’s geographical and social isolation. Paradoxically, the longer he has taken this failure line the more successful he has become, and now heads one of the biggest bands in the world, but is pretty much the same person he always was. So the conundrum for Parker was not the failure and the isolation and the social incompetence, but how to share this view of the world to whoever wanted to listen to his digital psychedelia, which enabled his emergence. (Having Modular as a record label helped too, but he played the politics well to secure that deal.)

    I did identify the emerging trend as an epidemic, like the flu, some time back, which writing caught from other fields of competitive endeavour (Gridiron football, and suchlike) and doesn’t actually mean anything as far as I can tell. I’m always suspicious of participles used as adjectives, and head down to the etymological factory to see what makes the language system tick, which in this case reveals:

    emerge (v.)
    1560s, from Middle French émerger, from Latin emergere “rise out or up, bring forth, bring to light,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + mergere “to dip, sink” (see merge). The notion is of rising from a liquid by virtue of buoyancy. Related: Emerged; emerging.

    From this you learn such hilarious information as Capri Pants being called such because they were first popular in Capri, which was emerging as a popular European holiday destination etc, and a whole lot of other hysterical historical emerging detritus.

    So, as you suggest, slime describes pretty well where the emerging writer comes from, and floats upon, once fully emerged.

    And wasn’t this supposed to be Donne week? Below is one of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which was first written in prose before emerging as the now famous clichéd lyric. (The prose piece was written while Donne was recovering from a bad flu or viral infection, typhus possibly.)

    No Man Is An Island

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

    The prose devotion this poem was based on was written in honour of the emergement of King Charles 1, who was then tried and executed for treason, so the current Prince Charles, and possible King Charles 2, has lucked in while he remains emerging, as this post would have it. That emerging writers should be so lucky.

    Thanks. Great post.

    PS I began by reading the post backwards for a change (because Tame Impala’s Feels Like We Always Go Backwards was playing), but laughed and gave up when I reached your trumping sentence beginning (ending)…. “Perhaps the emerged need to learn to go backwards and find the obscurity from which they began.”

    • This post actually started out as piece on failure. I was very taken by a quote of Johnny Rotten’s (I like to think of Lydon and Rotten as two different people): “I really do think that the crowning achievement of the Sex Pistols is that we always failed to rise to big occasions. When the chips were down we never came through.”
      When I worked with young children (and in my clinical work now) I met (and meet)so many children and adults who think they have failed, failed as people. They think there’s something wrong with them. They haven’t failed, they’ve been very effectively taught that their normality is a marker of everyone else’s justifiable contempt. I think it is very very very easy for us to harbour contempt for each other. It’s neoliberalism’s preferred emotion. And funny you tried the backwards thing; I often read books back to front,and when I was younger also cultivated the ability to read things literally backwards. Now when I write I always reckon that what I’ve written should be just as meaningful read back to front. So now you’ve worked that out, my mission is complete.
      And it was really Donne Week? I missed it being too focused on Josephine Baker Day perhaps.

      • Charles 3 or George 7, apparently. Should always check my facts rather than going with a doubtful thought.

        That’s why you’re an editor and I’m not, Clare, I guess.

        Theragain, I’m happy to have escaped my father’s fate of having to learn the Kings and Queens of England off by heart in reigning order. The then reigning colonialist education ideology being that that sort of stuff was all you needed to know about history.

  5. Stephen, can you expand more on this: “They haven’t failed, they’ve been very effectively taught that their normality is a marker of everyone else’s justifiable contempt.” Maybe an example or two? Oh yeah, take it from my living, if you want ;-)

    • Well a couple of examples would be the child who ‘fails’ to meet the developmental markers everyone else has set her, or the adult who having experienced some traumatic events often as a child comes to see himself as having something wrong with him.
      If late/post/neoliberalism ranks people according to specific measurable achievements and argues that those achievements constitute a natural meritocracy, anyone unable (or unwilling) to engage with those measures becomes an embodiment of failure. Failure is your fault because it is wired into you.

  6. ok – that makes sense. I think I tripped over the phase “their normality” — yes, everyone has their own normality which will intersect and not intersect with generic models of development and achievement. I was thinking you also meant: “their (lack of) normality (against generic models and norms)” which is effectively the same thing.

    But I want to just pick one bone with you here, and that is that you seem to want to make “neoliberalism” to be the baddie. But this measurement against developments generic milestones etc seems to have a longer history, back to developmental psychology, assessment models in schooling as long as the history of schooling, and hierarchies and pecking orders and norms developed in a range of cultures and epochs.

    Is neoliberalism the only version of this? the latest version? the most intense/oppressive version?

    I’m wanting some historical context for your historical-political claims about ‘neoliberalism’ because without this your arguments, which I really value, can seem to be easy to dismiss by people saying: Stephen is lumping everything into the one basket when it is more complex than that.

    • Neoliberal capitalism is in a class of its own though. For a start, it’s global and has global consequences. Capitalism also is brilliant at creating or endorsing multiple subjectivities and insinuates itself into intimate relationships at a really fundamental level in an even more effective way than religions have managed to do. It’s been a real game-changer in so many ways, because it is so difficult not to be complicit with it and its awesomely punitive and comprehensive psychologies.

      • It was probably easier before 80s style neoliberalism took off, simply blaming stuff on bourgeois economics. Still, even then, pre 1980s, and possibly for who knows how long, deviances have been measured from imaginary norms which are never articulated to begin with, so setting desire in place while strengthening the power base built upon those imaginary norms. Come to think of it, blaming everything on bourgeois microeconomics was the reason why your young marxist days were the happiest days of your life. I can’t seem to get a handle on anything these days.

        • You put it very well Dennis. Though you might mean ‘my young marxist days’ rather than ‘yours.’ My young marxist days were mostly too deranged to be happy.

          Anyway, that’s how neoliberalism has worked. It’s screwed the Left mightily. Even the Left can be enthusiastic neoliberals now. Or at least have covert neoliberal desires. It’s very interesting how much we’ve come to accept a different kind of desire; a belief that we can be both bourgeois and radical.

  7. Even though you destroy the very world as I know it (or perhaps it is because of this!), I love your mind. I prepare myself to be unsettled by your articles; but I am always consoled by the dynamism of consciousness they lend. You dissolve the stagnation of unconscious adherence to neoliberal norms. I want to marry your article.

  8. I was saying to a friend yesterday that if there were a ranking for OL posts that gained the most angry comments, I’d head it. Which is kind of unsettling. On the other hand, I think I’d also head the list of ‘Posts that people want to marry.’ Which is a little unnerving but not unsettling.

  9. Still, a Citroën CV would be nice. As a child who never had a pony…

    Somehow when you speak of writing a short story, Stephen, I immediately picture a novella. Your blog posts tend towards the expansive.

    • Well, that’s a fair assessment. I couldn’t write short story to save my life, and I’m too lazty to write a novel.

  10. Well, I was going to suggest that Stephen was creatively rehashing Weberian sociology and treating neoliberalism as a recursive current manifestation of modernity but that would obviously be a mistaken trivialisation.

      • Something tells me Gus does not harbor the same feelings for this post.

        Stephen, I think it could be considered but you’d need to romanticize the language a little; market yourself. Consider: “On the origins of family, private property and the emerging writer; A rehashing of Weberian sociology which treats neoliberalism as a recursive current manifestation of modernity. A desolate and unapologetically irrelevant exploration of society as understood through the transposed formulaic logic of various dead white men.” That ought to do it.

  11. You may have invented the automatic writing machine which works (in the dialectical sense) with these posts of yours, Stephen, which was the original idea of (I’ll just say a name and Clare or someone will correct me if I’m wrong) Breton, or possibly Freud. Soon you’ll just have to think of an idea for a post (or maybe post just the idea to begin with) and other people will come along and complete the post. All you would have to do is shape it into an authentic Cruel Miracle and it’s done. Wouldn’t be much fun for you though, as then you’d be an emerged writer of sorts. There again, it’s already been done – a million times over probably – and fairly recently by
    one of those US mega-monster genre writers who married a young bride who sold him on the idea. (Must have been Duchamp!)

  12. Steady on, I forgot to go back and add the opening rider, “Judging from the last few comments…” And it was to be multiple people (other than myself) concurrently writing the one blog. I ain’t never no blogger. No, no, do not make me go to Lethe…

  13. This seems worthy of further historical analysis/exploration:

    “Even the Left can be enthusiastic neoliberals now. Or at least have covert neoliberal desires. It’s very interesting how much we’ve come to accept a different kind of desire; a belief that we can be both bourgeois and radical.”

    • Well, it’s not a new idea. But I do wonder how much bourgeois neoliberalism has colonised the Left. It’s not like we can position neoliberalism as something ‘out there’ separate from a purer politics of the Left. I suppose the Left’s drift into progressive liberalism is actually an effect of neolberalism. Progressive liberals want a healthy affluent educated middle class, homeowning, cashed up, patriotic even, and this was very much a tenet of Thatcher and Blair. What we get when we try to promote such a thing is vicious personal competition for status and resources. Bourgeois subjectivities can easily accommodate the idea of the revolutionary.

  14. CRUEL MIRACLES: blog posts that many comment on, and some even hate, in which Stephen Wright (clearly a pseudonym – Saint Even Writes) shows the lefty people who read and run Overland that even the Left can be enthusiastic neoliberals now. Or at least have covert neoliberal desires. It’s very interesting how much we’ve come to accept a different kind of desire; a belief that we can be both bourgeois and radical.

  15. This is one of the most enjoyable reads – blog, diagrams, comments, the lot. Though challenging some seriously scary constructs, it’s a nice change to engage in your disruptive dialogue amongst many ripples of mirth and humour. I too prepare myself before reading your blog. Prepare for the inevitable dislocation of comfy assumptions, a beaming beacon on blind spots, and the resulting ousting of a few more global capitalist notions from the intricate intimacies of my life.

    I love the idea of the marginal being a vast, open space; it got me thinking that that could be quite a nice analogy for one’s own unique creative mind space, life space even, and that if we could really occupy that space and place without fear of the quiet and lack of bright bustle, we might succeed on our own terms.

    And I think the question of who decides what success is, is key – I think we can decide that for ourselves, and if someone else happens to like what we do, benefits from it, then we can be happy knowing that; perhaps that is success.

    But, is that also naive to think that is achievable within the bombarding politics of creativity, of anything? Maybe there is a balance to be found, not a perfect point, but a way to navigate between the marginal, which is not so, and the mainstream, which is.

    • I think ‘success’ has to be predicated on interactions with others to a large extent. For example, as a father (or professionally as a community services manager or counselor) I can take certain ethical positions by which I can engage with others. But if my daughter, (or staff or counselees) say ‘You suck Steve’ then I need to ethically rethink.
      And on one level the people we care for are (hopefully) always going to tell us how much we suck, (because, of course, we all often suck at so many things we cherish) so that failure doesn’t become quite such a shameful thing.
      Success and failure can often be outside our control too, but neoliberalism says that they are not. If you can’t get published in literary journals that’s because you’re a bad writer, not because lit journals have their own politic and preferences. And if you make money, you’re a success no matter how much of a pillock you are. And if you’re poor, that’s something to be ashamed of.

      • Okay. thanks for shining a light on individualism. I do find this one of the most unnatural aspects of the mainstream and also one of the most easy to slip by unnoticed; it’s so pervasive and so neatly sewn into all our aspirations and desires culturally…it’s hiding in plain site all the time.

        Considering our interactions with others as largely determining our success, within a caring understanding, and therefore without shame or pressure to achieve something particular, is a very desirable and workable foundation of success and failure, but how does that translate to those outside of our close connections? to the world outside our creative mind, our immediate relationships, and to the greater community, in this case, literary community?

        • Well, as far as literature goes, these days I tend to think of it as a possibility for offering a gift, a tentative exploration of the ways in which it’s possible to manage or resolve or turn inside-out or dreams away our socially-produced mental illnesses. In that interpretation I guess there’s a chance for some exchange or reciprocity, or at least the acknowledgment that that’s what we need. That’s about as far as I can take it. I don’t really subscribe to ideas of transcendent genius or whatever, so once you discard that things get a bit dirtier and messier.

  16. And I think this “value the incomplete thing, the broken thought, the insecure unresolved present, the ordinary day, the threadbare achievement, and the emerging and unresolved state” is HONEST. Striving to arrive at completeness may well be the very thing that slowly suffocates the creative process, which when we notice, we simultaneously try to resuscitate it with token moments of acknowledgement of this incompleteness; a small dose of honesty, which is all we can bear within the mainstream machine, which is all it permits.

    And the idea that creativity is one thing happening, that our creative endeavours result from a single process (a word that itself invokes progression and method) is part of this ‘complete’ success model you refer to. The creative mind exists in a multiplicity of places and processes, many of them incomplete.

    Maybe a step away from the failure-success creative process is the idea of a healthy creative process, within a creative landscape that is honest, a landscape brimming with incompletenesses. Not like a static pile of nowheres and nothings, but a lively rich landscape where the incompletenesses happen sometimes to come together and take more complex forms until something is born, something is written. And if a something survives in the real world well and good, and if it doesn’t, well and good. Perhaps incompleteness and ‘failure’ are reborn into completeness in another time and place within this healthy landscape, and then again, maybe not.

  17. So, the emperor’s new anonymities. Two of literature’s great themes have been emerging failure fears: fear of leaving the world unloved (The Flying Dutchman); fear of unfinished business (Hamlet). The consolation for both is the thought that any present judgement may not be the last. Whether that thought is a worthwhile and sustaining consolation while alive, I don’t know; though examples of people once perceived as failures and later becoming positive examples, even guiding lights, is all too common. Thoreau, given the times, seen trekking off to Walden, may well have been judged a failure then, but rarely so today, and is one example that springs to mind. So the person who is perceived to be a failure because things are done or achieved “wrongly” at the time is just as important as the person who is perceived to be a success for doing or achieving things “rightly” later on. With the first, the failure is a guide for the so-called normal people of the time as what not to so; for the second, success is a guide for the so-called normal people of a later time as what to do. Go figure.

    • So maybe literary writers are people afraid of being left unloved, and/or are obsessed with finishing things or fixated on ways of failing, or certain ways of failing.

      • or people go back to writing anonymously again

        westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
        the small raine down can raine.
        Cryst, if my love were in my armes
        and I in my bedde again!

        maybe not quite like that, but anonymously, as no one actually owns words (langue: the word pool system) or their usage (parole: I is the person who says I; a signifier represents a subject for another signifier), but when turned into literature, words become the precious commodities of individuals where the movements of capital and its private property laws apply and are exercised as divine rights

        there are just not enough anonymous pieces left, and for a lot of the possessed rest, just not just enough vomit to go round

  18. The Lowrey room sounds fantastic! All too soon ‘education’ wants to streamline and tidy up our children’s emerging understandings and their resulting expression. We need a Lowrey stream in the new national curriculum!

    Can you please expand on point a) of this:

    “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.”

    I can plainly see the lack of exploration, understanding, let alone spaces and places to do that in (although this http://vimeo.com/58659769 is a good example), but the adult tendency to deny and discard any value beyond a passing evaluation of what the child’s writing should be is less clear, or more complicated.

    Perhaps it stems back to cultural and political values. Perhaps children’s writing isn’t viewed as dollar worthy. Perhaps the endemic, claustrophobic, and vastly unrecognised violence threading through the dominant mainstream causes us to hate the free thinking of the emerging child’s mind. Perhaps expression and communication is only valued as far as it can employ you, and if you are a working class kid, there’s no point nurturing the rich landscape of your imagination ’cause you don’t need that for a working class job. Perhaps it is the reflexive transmission of traumatic histories…Why do we hate our children so much?

  19. As I said in the post, working with children’s own orthographies meant that they developed quite rich syntaxes of their own. For example, writing soundtracks for books was popular, soundtracks that could also be read back verbally by a child (‘This is the bit where he jumps in the puddle’ etc). The longer this went on, the more complex and nuanced these representations of meaning became.
    The standard approach is to see these as a way-station as children move toward school-based understandings of written language.
    Children make us think about childhood, which most people don’t want to do in any depth, certainly as a political reference point. When was the last time you sat with a group of adults and discussed your childhoods? Parental anxiety about childhood means that anxiety gets managed away via the contemporary obsession with ‘parenting skills’ and developmental markers such as counting,pronunciation, reciting the alphabet etc etc. It keeps childhood predictable and it effaces thoughts of class for example, as you point out. Just lately there have been a couple of posts at OL about children and maternal leave. I found them both quite alarming. I don’t have the time to pull them apart here – and can’t be bothered either – but I think both posts seem to harbour a kind of secret neoliberal desire, privileging the contemporary workplace and child care as an adjunct to that, as though the modern neoliberal cybercapitalist work place could be made child-friendly or become a sustainable adjunct to mothering. It can’t. And I think it’s a sign of the times that such debates as maternal leave can be unproblematically framed by the Left in such terms.

  20. Emerging out of the obscurity of everyday life, come forth thee worthy writers. Illuminate and praise these once poor darkened few.
    I tend to agree with Stephen on this one. I am not an emerging writer but my 5 yr. old daughter has been termed an emerging reader. How and why should literary existence be only recognised after it has been labelled as such? Emergence then becomes the possibility of potential financial gains from publishing houses. As you suggest Stephen, self publication is still largely regarded as being a literary outlaw, existing in the margins. This I feel is changing, having the badge of published honour will perhaps fade in these cyber times and the world of the literary elite will become a self serving shrinking cartel that seeks to create relevance through the occasional literal prize.

    In regards to maternity leave, we are in danger of rationalising every aspect of our lives in favour of employment pursuits. I believe many mothers live with a recognisable and completely understandable cognitive dissonance regarding the raising of their children. Existing within contemporary society is the thought or action of returning to work set against the idea of staying home and raising their children. The growing trend seems to be the neoliberal rationale that working life trumps any attempt to stay at home with the young children.

  21. These comments, with the post, seem to encapsulate nearly all the themes in all your blogs on OL, Stephen, bar maybe war (or has that been mentioned?). Very interesting reading, everyone.

    And this as also a summary of things: “literature… as a possibility for offering a gift, a tentative exploration of the ways in which it’s possible to manage or resolve or turn inside-out or dreams away our socially-produced mental illnesses.”

    • There’s not much around on literature as a political expression of the traumatic – and I doubt if a lot of creative writers would be interested in thinking of it that way. A little while ago, there was a post at Meanjin (I think) which spoke of writing as a state of grace. As if the holy spirit descended upon the writer as he or she creates.

  22. So that’s your thing, right? “literature as a political expression of the traumatic”.

    Someone writing an essay about you and your writing might usefully make that the topic, I reckon.

    And if they did, what other authors/writing/texts would you immediately point them to?

  23. Someone wanting to write to write about me and my writing (a somewhat bizarre concept) probably needs to get a life or go and get some help.

    • Stephen telling all his commentors to go jump. Love it! ;-)
      Just as well you are a counsellor, we can come to you for help.

      Let me say the question another way: we could think more about literature as a political expression of the traumatic. That would be good, I think. And then so if there is not much literature on this, where to start? (maybe not with literature?)

      • Literature’s just a kind of weird cultural epiphenomenon. Why not start with the your street?

  24. Way past time of course but I just wanted to mention that in fact Henry VIII, (known in my school as Harry8) was an archetypal politician/leader who made the same mistake so many of such like do: he thought if a historical situation was repeated the consequences would be the same as last time.

  25. The myth of eternal return? This post never dies, thanks to Luke. I see you’ve got the trauma thing covered somewhat on the more recent Swedish post, literature of which I’ve not read a letter nor seen a pixel (and feel no poorer for it judging from its tenor), so I’ll take up Luke’s pointers here. This may read, and probably is, callous, but is there such a thing as middle class trauma – the trauma you get when there is no trauma? Because that’s the likely outcome should trauma become a trending literary topic. Painting is a form of literature too, in the indigenous sense of writing the land, so I’d point toward the other end of the scale and the trauma of drought in Yulparija country for the Great Sandy Desert painter Weaver Jack, due to mining in the Pilbara disturbing the flow of underground springs, leaving Jack and her husband to wander the land looking for water, before resettling elsewhere. If trauma is the attempt or continued attempts to psychically recover from truly devastating experiences, two weeks ago I got to see one of Weaver Jack’s paintings, a self portrait, Weaver Jack in Lungarung. This painting is well documented, as it was an Archibald Prize finalist some years ago (Jack’s painting makes a lot of the other finalists’ subjects from that year look like stiffs), and is interesting for the way Jack recovers, or covers over trauma through her painting. According to Jack’s amanuensis, Emily Rohr, first she marked a cross on the canvas to join self and country. Then the skeleton of lost country was outlined, followed by loosely arranged dots representing her people merging with country. Then she placed her self in the canvas, though you wouldn’t know it, as this is no conventional European portrait. Her country was absent still, but through her self portrait, Jack was able to reunite herself with her people and country and so regain psychic wholeness, apparently. I’d like to read that sort of processing of trauma as a novel. And to end, I remember some indigenous people being given equipment once to make a documentary of, again, country that had been decimated. They were shown a choice of lenses, and contra to European filmic convention, chose to shoot the whole thing in wide angle to get as much country as possible in the frame, the shooting and editing taking place as one process in camera. I’d be pointing to, and like to read that sort of trauma novel too.

    • Middle class trauma is the trauma of being complicit in its perpetuation and choosing to trade off that knowledge for shiny objects or experiences. Including the writing of literature.
      Thanks for the description of and references to Aboriginal artistic production. It seems to me that it is Aboriginal people, including artists, musicians and writers who are doing the critical work of mourning that white Australia doesn’t want to do. I struggle to think of a non-Indigenous writer doing this.

  26. Stephen your comments above prompted me to check the bios of the presenter & contributors at the Emerging Writers’ Festival next week. Of the 157 listed there is barely an “emerging” (and I appreciate your abhorrence of the word) writer among them – all industry insiders, bloggers, authors and academics. It seems the “emergers” are actually the punters paying to attend – go figure. Which makes me wonder how this differs from a straight-up Writers’ Festival?

    • That is a very interesting analysis Mark. Not unsurprising though. Thanks for doing the legwork. It’s not surprising that the usual suspects would be the one’s delivering the lectures etc, but depressing that the unpublished would turn up and to hear what they have to say

  27. So the festival for emerging writers, but not featuring them, is in full swing, or so I see from the email I received from Overland, where a number of Overland personnel are presenting, which puts you one out Mr Wright. I see also from one of the sessions that emergence, being a successful writer, seems to mean a publishing contract or deal of sorts:

    Writers just write, right? NO! The business of being a writer means much more than that: filing, taxation, profile creation, time management. It all matters. This popular masterclass is about providing writers with the tools and tips with which they can go on to forge their successful careers.
    Sessions will cover: Teaching Writing, Bringing in the Money, Organisation and Strategic Planning, Building Relationships, Marketing and Self Promotion, the Life of a Writer.

    As the post has suggested, having one’s writing / life locked into any sort of corporate / business deal seems a pretty good reason for not emerging, I would have thought.

    • Wow. When you wrote: “Writers just write, right? NO! The business of being a writer means much more than that: filing, taxation, profile creation, time management” etc, etc, I thought you were making a complicated joke about a workshop perhaps titled ‘The neoliberal writer.’

      A ‘popular masterclass?’ That’s very very funny. I can go to sleep now and chortle my way into dreaming.

    • Actually, writing has its particular and unsettling associations for me. If I am writing, am I also Wrighting and righting? Am I building a self with words, inscribing my name over and over and over stamping it on the page like the texture of concrete printed on flesh? Am I attempting to right something that has capsized, locating something drowned? Or just establishing ways of being correct at the expense of everyone else’s wrongs?

      • Names are interesting like that: I’m a bit fishy, a wild rough one in Celtic terms, apparently. You could be a trade too, as in the long line of wrights, including playwright (or, play right – play – rite); but I’m assuaging you’re, in your own words, “attempting to right something that has capsized, locating something drowned”. Which makes you a sort of prospero, sitting on the edge of desire, attempting to transfer power to the dispossessed.

  28. Hi Stephen, While you’ve raised some interesting points, I fundamentally disagree with your assertion that the term “‘emergence’ has a subtext of failure”. On the contrary, to my mind ‘emergence’ or ‘emerging’ suggests one is in the midst of gaining acknowledgement for their work and, thus, building their reputation as a successful writer. As Director of the online organisation, Field of Words, I actively seek out ‘emerging’ writers who are striving to have their material read and recognised; in doing so, I hope to give these writers access to an audience that they might otherwise struggle to access. I was inspired to kick-start this initiative because I know first-hand how difficult it can be to break into the publishing world; indeed, although I have had a fairly wide selection of fiction and non-fiction material published, I still consider myself to be ‘emerging’. In this sense, there are many more stories within my psyche that I’m yet to set free into the world. Additionally, while I hold a Doctorate of Creative Arts and have studied narrative extensively, I believe I have significant room to improve in terms of my understanding and execution of writing techniques. Furthermore, as someone who reflects upon my work in an attempt to recognise how it might be made more evocative, resonant, powerful, etc., I would like to think I demonstrate qualities that are essential for success in any field: modesty, grit and perseverance. I ask you: what is infantile about that?

    • Sounds like you are writing me a job application. This post is well over 3 years old, but during that time I haven’t seen anything in the Australian publishing industry that has made me change me mind. In fact the commitment to meritocracy seems stronger than ever. And I have been astounded by (a) the demonstration of privilege and entitlement on offer, (b) the absolutely staggering lack of professionalism and demonstrations of casual arrogance and (c) the instant defensiveness and-or anger around receiving any mild critique.
      You can disagree to your heart’s content Eileen, but Like the very angry 2nd commmenter on this post I think you’ve missed the point entirely and just picked up on the bit that offends you.. The term ‘emerging’ has many possible associations I think. But the critical thing about any allocated meaning is that context is important.
      Writing and publishing literature should be a highly politicised space I think. In Australia it’s not. It’s largely conservative, patronising,increasingly dominated by people with writing degrees, irrelevant to the lives of most people and so stultifying in what it produces that it beggars belief.

      • And I meant to add, the question I have for any writer or publisher working in the neoliberal and reactionary conditions under which literature is produced is, ‘Why are you doing what you are doing?’

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