You can be a successful writer, but only if you live in Melbourne or Sydney

In Wendell Berry’s recent collection of essays, The World-Ending Fire, he writes of his decision to leave New York and return home to Kentucky.

That day I had been summoned by one of my superiors at the university, whose intention, I had already learned, was to persuade me to stay on in New York ‘for my own good’ … I had reached the greatest city in the nation; I had a good job; I was meeting other writers and talking with them and learning from them; I had reason to hope that I might take a still larger part in the literary life of that place. On the other hand, I knew I had not escaped Kentucky, and had never really wanted to.

The first essay in the collection sets the tone for Berry’s idiosyncratic literary life. But surely the senior writer had a point – wasn’t Berry sabotaging his career by moving back to the sticks?

Discourses of privilege are widespread in Australian literary circles, but this rarely extends to simple, old-fashioned geography. I find this surprising. It’s no secret that there can be snobbishness towards art from the regions; geography and class can be closely related. One need only consider the loaded nature of the word ‘provincial’, or attitudes to certain suburbs in any given city.

In Tasmania, David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art has been an enormous success, largely because it can buy into the semiotics of the international art world on the back of considerable economic capital and unadulterated gumption. Mainland reporting of the arts in Tasmania is dominated by coverage of MONA; it has made the leap to international significance, and so it qualifies. But what of actual Tasmanian art?

It’s not my intention to equate the privilege of geography with characteristics like gender and race, which can influence the dynamics of huge swathes of social relations. What I want to suggest is that for writers and other creatives, it operates in a similar way, and that in the current think-piece climate it is surprising that it is not discussed in such terms more often.

Perhaps it is partly because other discussions around power and identity take place within the centres – such discourses are internal to them. There is a certain pointed prominence when you are travelling on the same train.

Much has been made of the writing taking place in Western Sydney, and deservedly so; part of the attraction has been the energy and quality of this writing in the context of cultural and class difference. None of this do I wish to diminish or disdain. What is not discussed is the fact that these writers are still from Sydney, and this is tremendously significant in an industry such as literature, where countless opportunities take place through informal links to individuals and institutions. There is, after all, a fine literary publisher who has committed to bringing writers from this region to attention. There are powerful cultural institutions down the long and gridlocked road. Such writers have potential opportunities that a culturally diverse community in Glenorchy could only dream about.

Some will argue that geography should not be compared in any sense with more inescapable markers of identity. Certainly, geographical disadvantages can be overcome more easily than many others – you can simply move, as countless people do.

Yet this may not be so straightforward for any number of social and economic reasons. Not all people can move.

More importantly: nor would we want them to. For the implications of such advice leads all Australian writers to move to New York; or at the very least, to Melbourne and Sydney. Is this the outcome we want: even more of our serious journalism and distinctive literary writing engaging with the two largest centres of population?

At times, this is exactly what our institutions seem to suggest. Two years ago, I resigned from the Program Advisory Committee of the Emerging Writers Festival when no Tasmanian writers were programmed for the event. Around the same time, the Melbourne Writers Festival announced a ‘30 Under 30’ project for younger Melbourne writers. I have no wish to denigrate this – it represents innovative programming that is to be applauded in what can be a staid festival environment – but what is the sense in restricting such an approach to Melbourne writers? The MWF is in every important sense a national festival, and it is a kick in the guts to regional writers to see yet another opportunity excluding them.

Reflecting on his decision to return to Kentucky, Wendell Berry writes: ‘I never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world.’

If we want writers to be living and working beyond literary worlds – passionately engaged with the real and complicated worlds around them – then their entrenched disadvantages will be inescapable. They will continue to be subject to the same assumptions about what constitutes a story of national significance, the same limitations in social and cultural capital, the same narrowing of pathways to build a successful creative career. All this is true of many professions, but one can write anywhere – you don’t need an opera house. The only barrier is privilege.

None of this is to say that writers can’t find ways around such geographical disadvantage by working ever harder, trying to build contacts and relationships where they can, and producing the best work possible.

But perhaps it is important that those writing in the major cities reflect on their privilege in geography, as with any other characteristic. They have access to the editors, the institutions, the contacts, the opportunities.

What’s more, it is crucial for our institutions to recognise such programing blind spots if we really want to be a nation of writers – producing quality work in Launceston and Broome, Darwin and Victor Harbour – and not just two keystrokes on the coastline.


Image: ‘Bass Strait’ / Gary Sauer-Thompson

Ben Walter

Ben Walter’s stories, essays and poems have appeared in Lithub, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow and many other publications. He is the fiction editor of Island.

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

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  1. There’s something to be said for the creative benefits of isolation, don’t you think? I used to live in the city, and I wasn’t any more prolific. If anything, I’ve written far more since I moved to Albany in 2013. And I might lament the distance to attend workshops or retreats, they were there when I lived in Perth, and I still didn’t attend them. Between family and work commitments, I just never found the time.

    I thought Ben’s point about the snobbishness of city vs country was interesting. While city folk might dismiss the perspective of those outside the metropolitan area, here in the country, working in a creative industry is often regarded with either suspicion, derision, or both, even though Albany has quite a rich arts culture. It’s been hard to find ‘my people’, and so there are moments when I wish I had the sort of close literary community that I read about online.

    Still, one needs some semblance of contentedness to be able to write, and here, I can breathe, and see the stars. For all the downsides, I don’t think I’ll leave anytime soon.

  2. I think with any professional group one has to think about where the power lies. Even if that group sees itself as marginalised etc, it still has centres of power and privilege and control and so forth, usually white liberal. And any professional group often has informal networks and ways of organising power and decision-making.
    Cities provide that in spades. If you live in the bush you are obviously outside those circles and don’t get a look-in.
    Personally, as a writer who has lived in the bush for almost their adult life, I don’t care. Isolation used to bother me quite a lot, but once I got a look at writers congregations of various kinds in cities, all of a sudden I didn’t want to be part of any of it.
    I live in the bush because I like trees and stars and wildlife and so forth, but also because housing is cheaper (we can often look like the suburban poor who can’t afford to live in the western suburbs)and I feel closer to the realities of the age (for example you can see climate change actually happening before your eyes) and also because it seems easier to build organisations or events that have a mass-effect.
    From the point of view of the bush, cities can look weird and unsustainable and useful only for entertainment. But I’d suggest that rural writers perception of the city is more realistic than urban writers perception of the bush. At any rate, I just need to find a place that’s fruitful for writing. I’ve discovered over the past couple of years that there is an immense to write about just around the few square kilometers where I live.
    Look forward to your ‘writers from the bush’ issue Overland 🙂

    1. I’m with you on much of what you say, SW. I’ve lived in big cities such as London and Jakarta (though admittedly as outsider) and hale from Brisbane but now I live in the country, though not too far from attendance at workshops or festivals. Love my admittedly sullied pastoral landscapes, clear skies, stunning sunsets over mountains but lament – via climate record keeping (almost as bad as Eric Idle’s character’s coal shovels) – that it is getting noticeably hotter each year. You can see it change the land. Cities numb that kind of observation; at least they did for me. When is this writers from the bush issue coming?

  3. I think there are too separate issues – writing that comes from regional and rural Australia, and writing that comes from cities other than Melbourne and Sydney. Old fashioned geography has always been a consideration for those of us working in that vast country of “Not Melbourne or Sydney.” We feel anxious about writing from our own place, anxious about missing out, anxious about all those missed opportunities because we will never bump into Helen Garner at our local coffee shop. So many of us move and become part of the Melbourne or Sydney scene (whatever that actually means) so we can be branded as Melbourne or Sydney writers. Or we tough it out, ignore the various anxieties and write what we want to write from where we are. I’ve just moved from Perth (an excellent writing city) to the rural wilds of New Zealand. Career suicide some would say. I don’t belong anywhere at the moment, but I do know that the shift has made me care less about fashion, perception and reception. I can hear my own voice a littler clearer now. I guess some of Wendell Berry’s real life is seeping into my writing life.

    1. I could not agree more. I think writers expect their work should be more widely appreciated than other forms of amateur art. I live in the bush and I’m surrounded by thwarted printmakers, painters, textile artists..the lot. They’re happy if they manage to organise and/or participate in a local exhibition, and yet writers seem to expect their work should be read by thousands of people.

      I’ve also realised, through accidentally reading the judges reports of the VU prize on this website, that ‘creative writing’ is well and truly embedded within the academy. The judges’ reports tell us that they expect ‘something new’ in the form – which assumes you’ve got a thoroughgoing understanding of what’s ‘old’ (unfashionable). Writers should also be familiar with terms like ‘auto-linear’ and a host of other unfamiliar loaded terms. I am a mechanic by training, this self referential literary world will remain remote to me no matter where it is physically located.

      Like all forms of art, writing should be undertaken primarily for the writer, in between picking up kids and working a real job. I get real satisfaction from writing and editing stories – it is truly a creative practice, but I know it is not particularly precious in the grand scheme of things.

  4. Many people, here and elsewhere, have responded by commenting on the advantages of writing in the regions – lower housing costs, for one, and a certain peacefulness and isolation that helps you focus on the work you need to do.

    Certainly don’t disagree with this – I’m happy living and writing where I live – but the fact that something has advantages doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work to overcome its disadvantages.

    In Tasmania it is both beautiful…and cold. The fact that it is beautiful doesn’t mean that we avoid putting on jumpers or lighting fires.

    1. When you put it like this Ben, it sounds like you might have missed the point of your own essay. I’m not sure it’s possible to change the urban-centric somewhat pathologically narcissistic culture of Australian literature; but it might be possible to build something else entirely in the margins. The whole history of revolutionary cultural change is about the things that emerge from the margins.
      I just finished reading an account of literary life in WWII London (Hewison, Under Siege) and it’s very clear that even in the middle of a WAR, against NAZIS, writers – particularly writers of the Left – were completely unable to stop back-stabbing, forming cliques, and privileging the ways that literature was disseminated. Hewison’s account of the behaviour of English writers and their critics between 1939 and 1945 doesn’t sound very different from Sydney or Brisbane in 2017. Changing elite urban literary culture doesn’t sound like an interesting task. Exploring the interstices in marginal living, does.

      1. Thanks for the reflections SW.

        Honestly? I think it’s a separate issue. The “something else entirely” is already there, as every writer works out how to live an isolated literary life. At times this will coalesce around a group of individuals, but in the regions these tend to be highly unstable and ephemeral (which I kind of like, and which might lead to the development of different ideas) but even then, which rarely form the kinds of institutions that can truly build writing careers and movements.

        I love experimenting with these forms of literary practice, but I’m also a pragmatist; I like an audience, and I like to make a partial living from my work. For this, there needs to be better pathways for writers from the regions to access the publishers, cultural organisations etc who make this possible. Wendell Berry’s current publisher is in Berkeley, California, for example, not Kentucky. I don’t think this is about selling out – it’s using the institutions that exist to enable a different lifestyle, and distribute/promote a different kind of writing.

        I have no desire to emulate urban literary culture, but I see no problem with trying to mess with its priorities – surely that’s what things like the Stella are all about?

        I’d welcome further thoughts from you on this issue?

        1. I’m not sure how transgressive the Stella Prize can be. Don’t get me wrong, I unreservedly support forums that prioritise women’s writing. However, it can be very easy to co-opt the Stella or silo it, as a kind of branding exercise.

          In terms of your own argument, Ben, I’d like to make a link between your use of the ideas of “career’ and ‘institution’. ‘Careers’ need institutions, and vice versa. And both concepts can be very treacherous when it comes to being a writer. so if you want a career as a writer you are going to be dependent on existing institutions for your living.I still often think about Eve Langley’s idea of ‘writing as practice’. It’s not a concept she developed in any thorough way, but it helps me think about being a writer as somebody marginal, intensely dedicated to possible kinds of life and thinking that are non-institutional.
          Maybe there’s a better word or idea than ‘institutional’. Maybe we need temporary guerrilla operations or something. I’m not sure. Small publishers can do this sometimes. But whatever, we have to find better methods of association I think, collectivising, or organising or ‘institutionalising’ in different ways.

          1. Sure SW, and I’m very open to such ideas. If you have reflections on how they could work, I’d love to discuss them, here or elsewhere.

            Here’s the issue, though, as I see it. If all you want to do is pursue a writing practice, independent of institutions and without thought of career, in a tremendously marginal way, that’s actually pretty easy, relatively speaking. I mean it has its challenges, in the practice itself and the fact of the lonely road, but its actually not too dissimilar to what most writers of any integrity are doing anyway.

            Totally eschewing the system sounds rebellious and it is in a way, but its not actually that difficult, per se.

            What’s actually a challenge is doing this, and at the same time trying to create new ways of organising, publishing and collectivising. Because in the regions, this becomes utterly exhausting. I’ve been doing it for nearly fifteen years in Tasmania, and I’ll continue to do it because its interesting and it makes a small difference. But there are very few people to help and you get fed up constantly reinventing things that someone up the road has as a matter of birthright.

            No doubt there’s always a risk of compromising one’s integrity if you are beholden to other institutions. (mind, I am not exactly sure what my integrity is – it seems such a fluid thing). But at the very least you can pick your institutions, and how you want to relate to them. Writing a bland, realist Aus-lit novel is the most boring thing I can imagine doing.

          2. You are massively oversimplifying I think. I’m not advocating a kind of Henry Miller-ish retreat inside a whale. The ‘system’ is a network of relationships not a thing (and maybe not even a system) and it’s not possible to withdraw from it anymore than one can cease breathing.
            But in being too eager to engage with it by vowing to knock it over one can miss something valuable, if painful about one’s (and others) marginal states.
            I appreciate your sense of rage and despair. “Reinventing things that someone up the road has as a matter of birthright” is of course tiring. That’s the nature of the work if you like; it’s really tiring. There’s not often a flag of victory and special badge at the end of the campaign. On the other hand I’m not sure we should try and reinvent the things someone else has as birthright, because what they have is irrevocably compromised, poisoned. You can work like a maniac to get the things that privilege says it has, career-build like crazy and one day you’re a columnist for the Guardian or the Canary and in a really difficult place, with a lot of wasted time under your belt.
            I’ve been a big fan of James Baldwin since I was a kid, and one thing I have taken from him is that white privilege is really a kind of horror show. He says himself at one point that he felt hopelessly compromised as the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father. And if the ‘system’ can compromise someone like Baldwin, the rest of us can take from that that we need to find other ways of resistance.

  5. Ben,
    what applies to writers also applies to photographers.

    The nexus of power in the visual arts lies in the Sydney/Melbourne/Canberra nexus. What happens in Adelaide is deemed to be of no interest or value.

    One point of difference though is that writers have a lot of small magazines available to publish their writings in. Photographers, in contrast, have very few.

  6. If people desire to read what you write you can be successful regardless of where you hale from and where and what you choose to write about. Awo/men!

  7. I know I’ve arrived after the party’s ended, however …
    I’m a farmer who writes and am lucky enough to have a writing group where I live, though I still feel ‘writerly-isolated’ from time to time. Every couple of years I go in search of some sort of Rural Writers Network online. I am yet to find one. If such a group exists, I’d love to know. So many of Our stories are missing in the media and in literary journals – I want to read them. To recognise Real Writing as Us. Refracted views through suburban prisms, while pretty or poignant or brutal, aren’t necessarily as We know them.
    Please, Rural Writers Network, if you exist, please post.

    PS I thought writing out of Tasmania was a bit of a ‘thing’? I imagine there are more writing farmers in Tasmania than there are in any other state or territory (per capita at least, possibly more in all). Besides, what else does a happy pig farmer do after the swill’s ended? I’ll be sure to check the next census. BTW I’m the only vege farmer in my local writers group, the rest are cockies and townies – but that’s another story …

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