Stinson reply
Type
Polemic
Category
Reading
Writing

Vulgar rhetoric

Most everyone in Australia’s small literary scene has heard the grumbling about Luke Carman’s essay, ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’ in the new Meanjin. One thing is certain: the response has been overwhelmingly negative and – even given the fact that Carman’s essay is inflammatory and provocative – surprisingly hostile. On Twitter, authors and reviewers I respect were calling it ‘a waffly cowardly piece of shit’ and ‘a pretty small minded way to think about art’. Three critical replies quickly appeared from writer Jessica Friedmann, Ellena Savage at the The Lifted Brow, and Ben Eltham at The Guardian.

For all the anger directed at it, though, most readers seem to find Carman’s essay confusing. In Friedmann’s reply, she states that ‘I won’t recapitulate Carman’s arguments, because frankly I don’t understand them’ – but surely it is uncontroversial that understanding needs to precede the act of criticism? Regardless, those who want to lambast the piece for its obtuseness seem unaware of the double-bind such a charge creates: if you couldn’t understand it, then it doesn’t make sense to be angry about it. And if you are angry about it, it probably wasn’t that obtuse.

Others have claimed Carman is just a resentful, aspirant writer venting because he has not been sufficiently recognised in the literary world – a critique Oscar Wilde lampooned in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell says, ‘Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.’ Yet Carman takes pains to describe his essay as ‘an insider’s account of the state of Australia’s so-called “writing culture”’ and elsewhere notes that ‘I’ve had the strange pleasure of being surrounded by some of our culture’s most celebrated writers, critics and editors. It’s not difficult to do so. The pond is small and the fish are big.’ Rather than being an irate and excluded outsider, Carman both sees himself as inside and disputes the notion that the literary world is particularly exclusive (‘It’s not difficult to do so’).

With the exception of Ellena Savage’s piece, very little of the online discussion has tried to find out what Carman might have been trying to do. Worse still, virtually no-one seems to have considered the rhetoric of Carman’s essay (particularly its heavy use of irony and hyperbole) or its deployment of a traditional genre – the jeremiad – whose central features are the use of bitter invective directed at widespread targets and an apocalyptic tone. The failure to note any of these things is a quod erat demonstrandum of Carman’s claim that literary culture is ‘obsessed with the “cultural now” and traffic[s] in fashionable opinions’ rather than caring about actual literary works, qualities, or arguments. Every half-baked tweet, off-the-cuff Facebook post, or socially mediatised opinion piece (like the very one I have written here) further tightens the noose.

It’s easy to dismiss Carman in a Grub Street opinion piece. Understanding it, though, seems to be either too hard or not worth the effort.

From my perspective, there’s plenty that could be argued with in it, and I am also fine with people deciding that rhetorically charged essays are not their cup of tea. But if you want to complain about it, I think you need to try to understand what it’s doing first. I will also note this: I have never met Carman or corresponded with him. I have never seen him except briefly in a YouTube clip. I haven’t even read his book – which got placed in a ‘to read’ pile between the births of my two children and has languished there until today. But I can use the internet and read an essay (perhaps more than once!) and between the two I have cobbled together some sense of what he’s on about and why. At the risk of offering a second-rate and less-than-comprehensive SparkNotes, let me share some of these not very hard-won insights.

For one, Carman is not just some run-of-the-mill outsider upset about his literary status. He has, from the outset, identified as a Western Sydney writer and was a co-founder and former associate director of the SWEATSHOP collective, whose aims Carman describes in an interview:

The collective is made up of artists from marginalised communities across Western Sydney, and we’ve found that the only way to develop in the face of a colossal indifference toward the sort of stories we want to tell is to be critically armed at all times. . . . the overwhelming majority of our energy as a collective goes on working with the outside world, with our local communities, particularly in local schools and universities. Our movement is all about creating a sustained creative and critical culture for the region.

Moreover, if you read online interviews with and essays by Carman, he routinely names and praises writers such as Maxine Beneba Clarke, Lachlan Brown, Omar Musa, Ellen Van Neerven, Peter Polites, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad – all writers who discuss the experiences of marginalised or underrepresented communities.

No-one has mentioned this, but it’s clear that Carman’s critique is not about personal fame but motivated by broader political positions. Indeed, his essay is reasonably clear in identifying his politics:

It speaks to the degraded state of our literary life that those within it assume any position that does not endorse their consensus about culture must be arguing for a reactionary, George Brandis sort of high-minded excellence. That someone might have in their mind an “underclass” rather than an elite when they consider the status quo simply does not occur to them.

As this passage suggests, Carman’s critique comes from a left-wing and, indeed, ‘underclass’ perspective. Understanding this makes clearer the general target of his screed.

What is that target? Well, in one sense it is exceptionally clear: he identifies a class of ‘anti-artists’ made up of arts administrators whose goal is to take up ‘positions on funding panels and advisory boards . . . and make meaningful decisions about what will and what will not be in our nation’s language’. These figures are anti-artists insofar as they view art as ‘a means to power’ rather than an end in itself. According to Carman, these anti-artists are everywhere, but achieve their highest concentration in Melbourne around the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas.

For Carman, these figures – who are pretty clearly middle-class people, by the way – are problematic because they set national arts agendas, frame debates, and distribute funding, but have no interest in art or its inherent qualities. Rather, they have a shallow relation to cultural fashion, and privilege commenting on such fashions (‘all they possess is opinions [sic]’) over engaging with artistic forms, traditions, or works. Put another way, for Carman, these anti-artists are people who want middle-class comforts and an artistic lifestyle, but are not all that interested in art itself.

Part of the essay’s difficulty, though, is that Carman doesn’t stop here. Instead of offering a level-headed analysis, or even empirical proof of his claims, he ratchets up the rhetoric into invective, describing these figures as ‘vampires’, ‘goons’, ‘mobsters’ and so forth. He also – having identified these anti-artists – moves on to other targets (creative writing teachers, middlebrow novelists), another common generic feature of the jeremiad. The effect produced by both aesthetic choices is hyperbole – which is to say exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. Indeed, one need only turn to the very first page of Carman’s An Elegant Young Man to see that hyperbole is an important part of his style:

I’m pretty much alone in this stance but I don’t reckon there should be any such thing as a heritage listing. I say all those old buildings are just taking up space that a block of units could fit into. I’m serious. Take everyone’s backyards away while you’re at it. No fooling. I’m not afraid of overcrowding. I wanna see people crushed in together like chunks of fish in a tuna can.

The extended series of overstatements (like those in Carman’s essay) increase their intensity in a way that literally reaffirms but figuratively undermines his point. Is the narrator here (also named Luke Carman) being serious about getting rid of backyards? He says he is, but the extremity of the rant threatens to push it over into caricature. Carman’s aesthetic, at least in the tiny sample I have read, seems to dance on this knife-edge between earnest assertion and self-parodying excess.

But Carman nods to this already in the essay, when he says, ‘I might as well pre-empt accusations of Mark Latham levels of bilious, cuckoo filibuster and borrow Holden Caulfield’s refrain: these people are phoneys.’ In invoking Latham, Carman actually underscores the extremity of his rant, and the reference to Caulfield strikes me as a note that is at least half-ironic (given Caulfield’s basically adolescent view of the world). Elsewhere, the essay employs heavy doses of irony such that his direct relation to other authors and ideas is unclear. Does he respect Antonia Hayes’ critique of Beth Driscoll or not? Does he like Ivor Indyk’s essay on literary prizes? Is he praising James Tierney or critiquing him? There are answers to these questions (respectively: not really, mostly, and both) but, due to Carman’s ironic and bitter tone, the reader has to work hard to clarify these relationships. The effect is destabilising – to throw the reader off balance. The essay announces these gestures in its opening discussion of Gore Vidal’s dichotomy of writers (which for Vidal was itself a joking-but-serious provocation), which introduces a phantasmagoric overtone to Carman’s dichotomy of artists and anti-artists.

This – or so it seems to me – is the style of the essay which is both sincere and hyperbolic, which says what it means and in doing so goes too far, aims for a specific target and ends up attacking everything around it. Rather than resolving these contradictions, the essay seeks to exploit them for a variety of effects.

Why do all of this? Well, for one, Carman notes that ‘diatribes’ are ‘acts of culture’, a point that, or so it seems to me, he seeks to prove by writing a diatribe with the same rhetorical techniques he might apply to fiction. Second, Carman has spent much of the essay attacking the easy opining and cultural journalism of anti-artists; here, the complex rhetoric of his diatribe – which seeks to be self-consciously literary – serves as formal riposte to such commentary. Third, Carman notes the pervasiveness of the cultural cringe, and his essay’s penchant for extremity and hyperbole strikes me as a way of overcoming (what he sees as) Australian timidity by bulldozing through the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Finally, Carman’s style is provocative and inflammatory. This is clearly no accident, nor is it just trolling, as some have argued. But there is another important effect of this, too: the essay is more or less a critique of a managerial, middle-class that Carman sees as running the arts in Australia. The essay’s lack of decorum – its refusal to abide by the rules of politeness – is an open challenge to middle-class professionalism, which, according to Carman, is the anti-artist’s natural mode of being. If the essay’s rhetoric has a patrician character (an association Carman explicitly rejects), its coarse and perhaps even vulgar bearing is a working-class retort to a middle-class arts bureaucracy. It’s the literary equivalent of giving your boss the finger.

Carman does not want nice middle-class managers to make more room for marginalised artists – and, indeed, he is scornful of writers who allow aspects of their identity to be used as PR tools for festivals and the like. Rather, his is an invitation for people to behave badly. He argues that the crisis in arts funding ironically provides an opportunity for creative anarchy:

Right now the gatekeepers are off their game, and there’s never been a better time to burst out of the confines they have imposed and make your way in this strange little world, being as strange as you like in the process.

Carman’s point here is not simply to revel in the potential joblessness of arts administrators (though there’s a bit of that, too), but to suggest that an insecure arts bureaucracy leaves more room to operate outside of the professionalised, middle-class norms such bureaucracies instil. For all of its hyperbolic rhetoric, the essay is a call for a limited form of underclass literary revolt – and the studied refusal of a creeping professionalisation.

 

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Emmett Stinson is an anti-artist who served on the federal Department of Innovation’s Book Industry Strategy Group (2011–12) and is a former chair of the Small Press Network (2009–13), a resident organisation in the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas. He is currently a lecturer in English at the University of Newcastle.

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Comments

  1. Thanyou Mr Stinson for such a clear-headed and insightful piece.

    I quote: “Worse still, virtually no-one seems to have considered the rhetoric of Carman’s essay (particularly its heavy use of irony and hyperbole) or its deployment of a traditional genre – the jeremiad – whose central features are the use of bitter invective directed at widespread targets and an apocalyptic tone.”

    To which I would say, exactly. At least someone is making good use of his or her skills in critical reading and writing obtained from a university education, which cannot be said for most self-proclaimed critics and writers in this country. It is bewildering how so many so-called litterateurs — all so apt in literature, in reading about literature and supposedly knowing what they are talking about when they talk about books and culture — cannot recognise these things, cannot recognise the essay form heightened to rhetorical pitch (have they not read their Virginia Woolf or the nineteenth century essayists in Britain and the US? Seems not). “I don’t understand it” has been the standard response. It is depressing that this is the level of cultural and intellectual debate in this country. We should be ashamed of ourselves and need to lift the game. If you didn’t understand it read it again. I read it once, slowly, often going back over sentences and whole paragraphs, and I can assure you, it is not only intelligible but also makes perfect sense.

    Finally, it seems to me that part of the backlash against Carman’s essay is due to matters of style, as Stinson says. I think there should be more emphasis on style, on style for style’s sake in Australian writing, because so much of it is so drearily matter-of-fact, or sentimental, or journalistic, or ‘correct’. An emphasis on style is interesting. It seems that there are too many litterateurs, creative writers, who are far more interested in being correct than anything else (in conforming to all different kinds of correctness). And so it is often a relief to encounter someone who embodies a reckless abandon, and who is being interesting through an outlandish style rather than merely trying to be correct, and that through such a style calls for an “underclass literary revolt – and the studied refusal of a creeping professionalisation”.

    Nicely put Mr. Stinson. Thanks.

  2. How refreshing to hear from Stinson, someone who has taken time to stop and consider Carman’s essay rather than simply reacting.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Emmett.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but since you quoted me, I might as well speak for myself. My “not understanding” is nothing to do with its style which, as I also said, is hardly Prynne, who does indeed use obscurity in his poems as a defence & argument against the easily commodifiable/consumable. This essay, in contrast, was written in an immediately identifiable style, which as you say has well defined antecedents. It affects a patrician air echoing Vidal, who is a kind of sardonic ghost behind it; yes, it features updated versions of 19th century sentence structures, dashes of rhetorical flourish, the nods to common tropes of 19C horror (vampires et al), the abrupt swerves between general and personal observations. There’s nothing however that makes it hard to understand as a reader, no elliptical grammar, broken sentences, shifts of form. It’s a long personal essay, written in mannered English. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    It’s a gesture, as you say, a provocation. But towards what? What I didn’t understand was the literary reality it painted. I simply didn’t recognise it, literally or metaphorically. It read like a paranoid fantasy, which undercut any of the serious points it may have been attempting to make. And maybe my real problem with it, why it got up my nose, is that I do think there are things to say. I do think our culture (now I’m thinking beyond literature) is in trouble, and I think the generation of artists who are young now have been utterly betrayed.

    Perhaps, like Carman himself, I am both an insider – I get published in this magazine, for instance – and a bit of an outsider – I have never quite fitted in literary Australia. And, perhaps for both these reasons, I simply missed some of the subtexts that have caused others to respond. But I didn’t miss the sense of a young man pulling on the tropes and tradition of literary masculine privilege (the style) to dump on a poorly paid, overworked workforce that is almost all women, nor on those associations of “feminine” and “middle class”. (Given, of course, that the bourgeois provenance of Joyce or Beckett or whoever Is perfectly fine; there is a code here). That’s been a major point of critique (eg Jessica Friedmann) that isn’t addressed here at all.

    It’s true that Australian literature – in fact, Australian culture – is dominated by the middle classes. There are reasons for this, old and new, which have been exacerbated by the recent pressures that have cut a lot of the programs and companies that reach beyond these. (Such programs are in fact among the first to go – witness the defunding of 90 per cent of theatre companies devoted to youth theatre, the ongoing cuts to ATSIC programs, libraries and so on). These are dark times in our culture, and not only for the arts. So to read an essay that referenced the demoralisation of the arts, yet which basically ignored the many structural reasons why this demoralisation exists while pointing towards – well, at first I had no idea who, but it was obviously people who in fact have very little actual power – was very disheartening. Perhaps others recognise more clearly whatever reality he was pointing to. I recognise timidity, conservatism, the fears that run through a culture sapped by the horrible fear that art making is illegitimate and pointless, a fear reinforced by almost every major media outlet in this country. They are all present in this essay; no doubt, as you say, as a performative exercise, but no less disempowering for all that. Reading the essay just made me think of starving rats in a cage eating each other. If that’s what it’s seeking to mimic, I guess all well and good, though I still question why; and I still don’t see why that energy isn’t directed against those who really are wrecking our future. But that would mean stepping out of a satisfying paranoid fantasy, perhaps into something much worse.

    • Can I just ask where Stinson quotes you? I’m really confused and it’s bugging me :) Sorry if I am being thick. I also do not understand the term Prynne in this context…
      Cheers, J

      • Hi Josephine – sorry, I should have said! I am the person quoted who said it was a small-minded way to think about art. As for Prynne: he came up in a context where Emmett was arguing that the “difficult” style of Carman’s essay was part of his argument, in how its literary style resisted easy foreclosure of meaning and argued for something beyond its explicit argument. (I think that’s right, Emmett?) The British poet JH Prynne, a poet I deeply admire fwiw, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a style (if it can be called that, maybe it’s more properly a philosophy of language & process) that carries its resistance to commodification in its refusal to be immediately, or even not immediately, transparent – Prynne sees this, among other things, as an argument against commodification, and as part of a critique of capitalism. So he was the first writer I thought of it connection with this argument. I just can’t see this essay as doing the same things; if anything, its style is conservative. Witness all the references to 19th century literature in this discussion, or even the essay’s contempt for contemporary means of communication, eg social media. It certainly doesn’t resist meaning – its meanings are all very clear. It’s just hard, or I found it hard, to see where they apply.

  4. Leaving aside the rhetorics of the Carman article, which Alison Croggon has addressed with far greater insight and knowledge that I can hope to match, I want to address some of the contradictions inherent in what Carman appears to be arguing for, and what I know of the attitudes and philosophy of his colleagues in the Sweatshop collective of western Sydney writers.

    I was, for seven years, one of the much reviled middle class ‘managers’ of an arts program in greater western Sydney. Like Sweatshop, and its predecessor in programs at Bankstown Youth Development Service, its focus was on young people, with many programs and activities focused on providing opportunities for children and teenagers from Aboriginal and other marginalised communities. The initial focus of the project was on working with established writers for children and teenagers, but as the project developed—and with the input of people like Sweatshop founder Michael Mohammed Ahmad—we soon began to deliberately employ a significant (60% +) number of writers and other artists from Greater Western Sydney, including community artists from various cultural groups, and to develop projects specifically to provide opportunities for new and established writers (employment, professional development, mentorships and fellowships) while we gave the young people of the region opportunities to tell their stories.

    So it puzzles me that Carman ‘does not want nice middle-class managers to make more room for marginalised artists’, given that ‘making room’ was precisely the message that his Sweatshop colleague was consistently giving me for pretty much my entire tenure with the project. (I would add here, though, that our views on who could lay claim to the title ‘western Sydney writer’ did not always match; the collective is very particular about deciding who is and who isn’t allowed to identify as being from the region.)

    Nevertheless, the message was unequivocal—not only should we only employ western Sydney writers, we should actively prevent children reading and writing anything that wasn’t from/about the region. At this point, as I hope you might imagine, we parted ways not merely philosophically, but also professionally. (The quickest way to make a kid into a non-reader (and writer) is to tell them that what they choose to read (and write) is bad, and wrong. And we were all about encouraging kids (especially marginalised ones) to read, and to write.)



    My other point of confusion is Carman’s anger at the impoverishment of writers, apparently in large part because of the lavish lifestyle of the average arts worker. (I’ll just note here that had I stayed in teaching, I’d have been earning somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 more per annum than I did in my arts job.)

    Carman’s co-founder of Sweatshop, when not upbraiding me for not employing the right kind of writers, also once argued angrily with me over the fact that we were paying our authors too much. Let me say that again—I was criticised for paying writers too much. We (proudly, but sometimes inadequately) always paid base-line Australian Society of Authors rates; this, I was told, was outrageous extravagance, and 10 workshops could be run for what we paid for a single one. My suggestion that this was exploitation was not, as you might imagine, well received.

    So you can imagine my confusion—writers are seemingly both underpaid and overpaid, and both is the fault of the arts worker.

    

Finally, I’m just curious as to what shape this proposed ‘revolution’ will take. If it’s simply ‘behaving badly”, well, that’s already accomplished; apparently professional discourtesy to fellow writers at those festivals they so loudly eschew (but never seem to turn down an invitation to) is the best way to fight the Man (who, as Alison and Jessica Friedman have pointed out, is usually actually the Woman).

    If it’s by-passing the usual funding and grants rounds, well, good news! There’s never been a better time to not apply for grants, given there hardly are any left for writers, and vastly fewer ‘anti-artists’ to give it out anyway. Wow man. That’ll show ‘em.

    The pity is, these are all genuinely gifted writers with important things to say about class, race, identity and (sometimes) gender in Australia, and they are doing extraordinary and important work, both in their writing and in their outreach work. But this turning on colleagues—many of whom are working for the same ends, and with far greater restrictions than they give them credit for—is at the very least unedifying, and is genuinely destructive of both good will and much-needed progress. Their time would be better spent writing the best, most genuinely radical works they can (they have no shortage, as we have seen, of publishing opportunities both mainstream and marginal) and perhaps in putting their anger and passion into actual activism and advocacy, rather than simply hurling ill-judged and inconsistent bombs inside the barricades.

    In other words, I get their anger, I just wish they’d keep their stories straight.

  5. “Their time would be better spent writing the best, most genuinely radical works they can (…) and perhaps in putting their anger and passion into actual activism and advocacy …”

    Skip the first option and go straight to the second – it is asking too much to expect a cultural form such as Literature to change an unjust world – energy put into the second option would be better spent and far for efficacious.

    Oh, and Carman’s essay is funny too – there again, humour is no laughing matter.

    • And re one of the comments (above), Carman’s argument does apply to capitalistic practises – but more in an applique sense – Carman seems to be asking literary publishing to shop more for writers outside its big box of conservative writing tricks – more particularly, give voice to the Other, which has no voice.

  6. I want to say that some of us are actually not demoralized but heartened by the permission of negativity of Carman’s essay. If you are unsatisfied with how literary politics are managed, then maybe you can find some solidarity here. Why should we be so happy with Melbourne social literary politics at the centre? Why isn’t the regional in view to arts managers and government? What about sites of international exchange and the development of new writing like Western Sydney, why has its writing taken so long to be accepted? Why do they send touring theatre companies to regional towns but not fund their artists as often? So on and so forth. I think Croggon’s criticisms in particular are in sympathy for an increasingly socially mediatized audience and yes I do think this is bad. Journals and performance spaces, sites of the work, are more and more becoming mediated by the politics of certain social exchange led by the charismas and campaigns of scenesters who can often be better recognized than writers. Unlike Carman though I don’t think it is really the administrators who are to blame, I think everyone is to blame. I think we read social media more than we read books. I think we read about slams and performances more than we attend them. The literary environment, or arts environment, of Australia is getting more vicarious and less intimate. And you know social media doesn’t have to mean this, I think we’re still learning how to use social media to find new ways to interact. At the moment though it is clearly standing in for those interactions, and I agree with Carman that it is the managers of these spaces that have the most visibility and social currency.

    Social media doesn’t need to be banal nor need to be implicated so, but I do think Carman’s essay and now Stinson’s rejoinder to the whole issue smartly deals with the questions of social media dominating our reading experience. We are starting to see what a literary culture built around a politics of likes looks like.

    I think Croggon’s critique above relies upon a tacit consensus emerging these days that to criticize at all the medium is to be highbrow. Isn’t this doing what Carman complained about in his essay? For me at least, we’ve begun fetishizing the freedoms of social media to publish anything without editorship as more free, more honest, more liberated has in turn privileged the louder voice, the likeable, the assumption of consensus, and the self-authenticating I, me, us. can be critically rigorous, but perhaps due to a lack of history, lack of moderation or editors (these editors could be anyone with expertise, by the way, not necessarily institutional), Luke Carman’s most beautiful point I think, which Stinson affirms in terms of its negativity and its creative use of language, is that social politics (connections and media) have in a short amount of time displaced all credibility of a real politics that intersects with literature. That so many people were outraged by this piece across social media is tantamount to glaring proof.

    The irony is of course that the populist tenor at the moment is that social media is the space of real politics, whereas journals and even essays themselves have lost legitimacy, because apparently associating with apparently less authentic institutional spaces than speaking candidly, which the assumption seems to be that social media is somehow more so.

    I liked Carman’s piece because it was saying that the anybrow (if I may) is given little space to grow or little visibility when everyone’s arguing about what is highbrow, what is middlebrow, what is lowbrow, and getting shirty about it. This is the best bit: Carman to my mind is really on the money when saying that to criticize the business of literature in a place like Melbourne, if I can call it that, is readily interpreted as being highbrow. That’s why I agree with Stinson when he points out that Carman more clearly has marginalized readers in mind and that the literary culture at present beleaguered with its own narcissistic (my addition) identification with a scene is blinkered by its evaluation of writing gauged as a set of grantable or ungrantable values which will or will not receive government endowments.

    It’s also saying to wake up to the literary politics that have emerged when those who manage writing become louder than writers. Croggon’s arguments are good about where critiques could be highbrow, totally. But it’s too convenient to say Carman’s is a highbrow response to the management of literature. To me this really only makes sense if you assume that what is being demoralized was moral in the first place. Fair enough, encourage, don’t be snarky, but aren’t literary cultures elsewhere lively because they’re willing to be critical?

    In being so precious we convey literary culture in Australia to be as insubstantial as Brandis-like figures think we are. If we were more confident with negativity, if writing like Carman’s was not seen as demoralizing but instead constructive, wouldn’t that send a better message that we do indeed have a literary culture of diverse opinion, that every diverse opinion is not a catastrophe, that we are capable of self-criticism? Carman’s essay makes clear his admissions of being an agent of such managerialism early on. That’s what makes some of the other published essays about the Carman affair better than comments here. They are actually willing to say that yes we can change, that we are a dynamic, diverse field, that negativity can be constructive.

    • Hi Tracy: I thought my point was that I thought the essay went for small, easy targets (so small I had trouble identifying them), claiming that they were the real forces destroying literature. In other words, I would have liked it to be _more_ cogently critical. I told Emmett, for those reasons, that I thought it was pusillanimous, though to be fair the discussion it kickstarted has been pretty interesting. The implicit gendering of the revolution it seems to be calling for depressed me deeply: it sounds like the same old same old to me. The much-discussed style didn’t help in my reaching that conclusion. It’s all a bit – stifling, knife fight in a phone box kind of thing.

      I don’t know about other people, but I have never been averse to critical discussion, and my own critique certainly doesn’t rest on any such tacit assumption. (And I’m slightly puzzled that you seem to think that I think “highbrow” is a bad thing? Fwiw, I hate all those brow terms. They seem to ghettoise my own experiences of reading and writing, which ranges across all the brows, for no good reason that I can understand.)

      Most of my experience of “social mediatised” art comes from writing as a critic/blogger in the theatre: an art which requires actual physical presence (most of the time) to experience. So I think these things are rather more complex than the easy caricatures that I usually see: the internet, in Melbourne’s case, for a few years catalysed the emergence of a much more “highbrow” public discussion of theatre than had been on offer outside the academy, ever. (If by “highbrow” you mean literate, engaged, impassioned, critical, socially engaged, historically and formally informed, etc). So I’m probably coming from a quite different place than some other people here.

      I think the internet is very much a double edged sword: it’s had disastrous consequences for much print media, but it opens public spaces that weren’t there before, which permits all sorts of serious discussion to reach new audiences. For some magazines it’s meant bigger audiences. And movements like Black Lives Matter – in fact, so much of the discussion of race and gender in literature and other media – are driven & engaged through Twitter and other social media, and it’s hard not to see this essay as being in part a response – intentionally or not, I’m not sure – to a lot of this kind of activism: the #LoveOzYA thing, for instance, which battles on a number of fronts against different kinds of literary and social elitism. Check out the Mongrel Coalition, who are making waves about the decolonisation of art & were central in the protest against problems in conceptual poetry, especially the scandal around Kenneth Goldsmith, and who rudely – nay, vulgarly – expose the racism and sexism that inheres in the tradition of European/American avant garde poetry. If you’re looking for the revolution, that is where it’s happening. And they really are funny.

      • Hi Alison Croggon, thank you for the information about Mongrel Coalition, I didn’t know much about them but I appreciate things that they say. It’s this grand negativity that they perform that I think we’ve managerialized out of Australian writing, though. If the scene were healthy then maybe when a criticism like this appears those who have done great work of administration and facilitation wouldn’t see their reflection in the mirror.

        I disagree with a bunch of things which you have said. You say that you haven’t criticized Carman or Stinson for occupying the position of the highbrow. Then I wonder what you mean about “mannered”, “literary masculine privilege”, and “19th C” style then.

        I didn’t know that Carman’s response to “phoneys” was gendered because I didn’t know most arts administrators were women. Anyhow, was he only criticizing arts administrators, or everyone participating in the scene? I think the vagueness that other people took issue with was in fact because he blamed the scene more than individuals. But maybe we just differ on this issue. Fair enough. You’ll get the connotations better than me.

        Also, there’s an element of Carman’s essay which Stinson develops about marginalized readerships that you have disregarded. This might be important for thinking about who is really working at the project of decolonization. I think writers are and I think Carman thinks so too. You sound more sympathetic to social media commentary. In your reply to me you have quoted an American situation. Were it applied to more immediately post-colonial situations like Australia it would seem terribly ignorant of especially First Nations activism already in very important debates with the inheritance of the European canon, I think. But like I said, I don’t know much about the Mongrel movement that you mention. Are you saying that we should trust in Twitter more than literature and literary debate?

        You encourage me to look for the revolution in an American reaction to American authors. If we follow your lead it is to Americanize our I think more established multicultural debates with canon that have been going on for decades, but more importantly to completely disregard the central role that First Nations work has had in debating the European inheritance of canon in post-colonial contexts for many years. America’s literary exploration of this is diminutive compared with Australia’s. Australia has had Jack Davis. Kath Walker. Alexis Wright. So on and so forth. This is what I mean. It seems we believe in the social capital of social media more today than we believe in decolonizing writing.

        I think the most obvious interpretive difference between your reading and mine is your first point. You identify that a) the targets of the Carman piece were too small and b) too small to identify. This is exactly the kind of scene response to criticism which is muddying engaging and substantial debate, muddying how negativity might be a powerful constructive force as a literature in relation to a world literature. The contradiction between the two should be clear enough to you that I don’t need to restate a) and b), first of all. Second of all, those outside a social scene of literature (not just Melbourne) don’t identify a), and in my case see b) as a criticism of managerialism and phoniness, not individuals. And if the essay were not so self-effacing I would so agree with you that Carman was asserting a position of privilege by negation.

        So the thing is for me, in summary, that I think what Carman criticizes is deserving of criticism as a scene, as a world which celebrates charismas and social capital but often not writing, and as a social media-colonized space (which could as I said earlier could be emancipating and articulate of new spaces, but as it is used at present to degrade interesting debate in Australia seems Americanized, homogenizing, and colonizing of already active sometimes more sophisticated debates going on in Australia).

        I guess where I’m coming from is that I wish the connotations of critical essays and the ways that they are read were towards decolonized spaces and just new ways of relating to the world. Instead, I see a lot of territorialism. Australian literature would be much healthier if our collective experience of writing was put before our narcissistic identification with management of a scene. That at least is what I take from this. I thank you also for being part of that. :)

        • Hi Tracy, I feel I’ve already said too much here! But to answer your specific points: as an observer/cultural critic of Australian arts for many years, I think what’s wrong with our culture goes way beyond, and is much more serious, than a few people (I still am not sure who precisely these people are) who are arts managers with social media accounts, or “scene” (whatever that is). If that really were the problem, we’d all be fine. And surely literary celebrity, which has always been a meretricious thing, is far older than social media, and has always been questionable.

          I wasn’t criticising Carman for being highbrow. I was saying that I like “highbrow ” work and was puzzled that you thought that I think to call something highbrow is pejorative. To be very clear, I was criticising Carman for, in my opinion, doing bad highbrow. I thought his style deliberately employed a tradition of literary masculine privilege to foreclose response, situating the essay to, as Jessica Friedmann put it, piss on people, notably women, from a great height. I haven’t mentioned the mental health shaming that also upset people, but it’s worth noting the equally long association between the feminine and hysteria, as well as the code of “middle class”.

          Re social media: yes, I mentioned MC as exemplary, but there’s a very strong Australian Indigenous presence on twitter, and it’s there because that platform gives Indigenous Australians (literary and other) unmediated public voices that they have struggled to find in other ways. I mentioned the strong presence of YA discussion, another marginalised literary form which focuses strongly and often very critically on questions of diversity. (#LoveOzYa is a direct response to the colonisation of Australian reading culture of esp US books). As I said, twitter has opened space for all these discussions in a way that hasn’t happened before. So instead of decrying some phantom idea of non-writerly Twitter celebrity (Australian writers are actually very active on Twitter) maybe Australian lit could have a good look at what is going on there. Not saying the digital age is without problems: of course it is, and we all know what they are. But regarding the entire phenomenon with scorn as a vampiric or deadly force dismisses and ignores the real energies that operate there and sites the essay, again, as a conservative shoring up. Acknowledging those energies on social media in no way erases other kinds of literary debate: I’d say the reverse. In real life, people slide between different activities all the time, and social media is no different.

          • You’re very good at this:)

            I expect you’re making everyone feel that everything’s fine, everyone’s empowered, and the scene, as it stands, noble. You quasi-countenance my points but then reassert the status quo. We can’t make analytical discussions of the middlebrow which celebrate genre inquiry for a day before outrage dominates the discussion. But territories apparently don’t negatively effect the quality of our discussions and ego is not an obstacle to new accessibilities and new visibilities. Meanwhile all published criticism is apparently privileged.

            The assumptions that people hold about social media and the negative connotations given to published criticism by debates just like this one, right, means that outsiders trust in the tenor of the rancour often more than other forms of writing, other styles, other tones. I’ve shown a willingness to be open to the many forms that social media can take and encourage us to be able to critique it diversely, you have shown no willingness to view it crtically, deferring to history and literary celebrity (which is so different) rather than the present.

            But I totally agree with you on your last point about social media and glad that you feel so: that it shouldn’t erase a diversity of debates. I agree with you about the presence of Indigenous writers on social media. This is why I’m passionate about writing which tries to refocus literary politics, to pursue new ideas and new forms of community, instead of conservative modes of consensus. The middlebrow debate was shambolic, let’s be honest. That’s how I discovered the Carman essay in the beginning.

            Some thought that the Carman essay was pissing on the heads of interns. Some of us thought it was mocking festival programmers and self-interested twitterers who have no interset in other people’s writing or ideas. Maybe this diversity of interpretation should be respected or appreciated.

            Re: digital age: “we all know what [its problems are"]“. If only.

          • I say (for example):

            “And maybe my real problem with it, why it got up my nose, is that I do think there are things to say. I do think our culture (now I’m thinking beyond literature) is in trouble, and I think the generation of artists who are young now have been utterly betrayed.”

            And you say that means:

            “I expect you’re making everyone feel that everything’s fine, everyone’s empowered, and the scene, as it stands, noble. You quasi-countenance my points but then reassert the status quo.”

            And now I really am out of here, because I loathe entering the hells of eternal return.

  7. The chief objection to Carman’s essay is a stylistic one: the writing is egregious, and many have remarked its failure of readability. In an earlier time, this would have disqualified it from a serious response altogether.

    Unfortunately, though, humanities departments have long since failed to impart a sense of what good writing is, leaving Australia’s cultural circles awash with bright young people who mistake a turgid and over-written style for intellectual sophistication. It is not their fault; they have been failed by the misguided academic fashions prevalent in higher education over the past two-to-three decades. Carman’s salvo, in particular, has a potent whiff of the undergraduate student rant about it; the replies it has inspired less so. Most read like the first draft of something that might, with work, have met the basic standard of strong writing: first and foremost, to be understood. This – and not mere force of indignation – is the sine qua non of the essay worth publishing, worth reading.

    Perhaps this reads like a grumpy and mean-spirited digression. All the same, literary debate in Australia now conducts itself very far from the country itself, and does so in terms utterly incomprehensible to the vast majority of Australian people. The result is acute vulnerability to the predations of small-minded politicians who glance at our national literary scene and see a peculiar and inconsequential little ghetto speaking an odd meta-language.

    There many fine people working in the Arts. They do not deserve the contempt of Carman or the bullying of Brandis. And if Melbourne, alone of Australia’s cities, wishes to place literature at the centre of literal and conceptual space, that is no business of Western Sydney’s – except, it is to be hoped, to inspire a program of positive emulation.

    It’s a shame Luke Carman took time out from his fiction to announce the shortcomings of his prose. Why give his howl in the void some company it doesn’t deserve?

  8. Dear Melbourne Mobsters,

    It’s a fishbowl. I need to take a moment and just laugh at my sense of self importance. Thank you.

    Carman’s essay elicited the response he sought. Certain susceptible souls have risen to the bait, driven by the defensiveness he described. The hyperbole worked. Get over yourselves. Wake up people. Australia’s literary art world over flow-eth with nut jobs and people that are strange.

    To be called Middle-brow is to be called mediocre. Precious egos hate the idea that they might be called mediocre.

    It seems the Sydney mob have raised some pertinent arguments relating to competitions, perceptions of middle class women writers, festivals and how writers brand themselves and broker power. They have pressed buttons.

    Be humble enough to acknowledge that Carman has written a great essay that has got under your skin.

    Frank

  9. Carman’s getting far too much air here, clean and otherwise (contradiction, I know).

    Anyone who thinks him highbrow has not a clue.

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