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