The need for humanism in literature: a response to Nell Butler

May I compliment Overland for its decision to publish Nell Butler’s article ‘Everything that is courageous and beautiful’. It was like the proverbial breath of fresh air to read something that confronted the zeitgeist of modern publishing with its morbid obsessions with identity, fantasy and money.

As it happened, I had never read a word of Paul Gallico’s, although his name was still quite familiar to me. So, to test the market, as it were, I visited my local bookseller and there was not a single work of his on the shelves. Then I crossed the road to my (well-stocked) secondhand bookstore and found a handful of ancient, tattered editions. Other than that, nothing.

But I assume Nell Butler’s point is much greater than Paul Gallico having gone out of fashion: compassion, empathy, social conscience, hope, sentiment and humanity have also gone out of fashion and seem to have swept Mr Gallico away with them. She suggests that the subordination of people to the great god of technology might have had something to do with this; perhaps she’s right. But I think a Marxist might suggest that the whole bagatelle of globalism and neoliberalism, with its sharp division of humanity into winners and losers, might be closer to the mark. After all, if you are justified in crushing a loser in the interest of becoming a winner, why would you want to dwell on the humanity you share with that loser?

Nevertheless, when she asserts ‘we need a resurgence of humanism in literature’, we are obviously left with the conundrum: in a neoliberal economy, how can this even begin to happen?

Might I intrude with a thumbnail description of my own experience in this field, as just one, insignificant example of the problem. As it happens I wrote a fictional manuscript based on what I thought was a very timely study of a hard man in public life who, despite supposedly having the interests of the ‘losers’ of society at his heart, allowed the worst aspects of globalism to take hold in a country known for a century or more for its democratic, egalitarian ideals, destroying human lives by the thousand in the process.

Yet, despite this manuscript having drawn praise for its awareness, the quality of its writing and its sensitivity, it failed to pass even a flicker of muster with the gatekeepers of our publishing industry. As one literary agent emailed me, ‘the story didn’t grab me’; when I suggested that the story might have merits beyond the immediately commercial, and could, with some intelligent marketing, actually become financially viable, utter silence was his terse reply.

So, my small experience tells me that until those gatekeepers are prepared to listen to something other than the tinkle of dollar coins, then I’m afraid that the pleas of people like Nell Butler, noble and reasoned though they may be, are destined to fall once more on deaf ears, cloth ears and tin ears.

Yours sincerely,
Rod Wise


Read the original essay from our spring edition,  ‘Everything that is courageous and beautiful’.


Image: Post-humanism 3 / flickr

Rod Wise

Rod Wise is a reader and writer residing in Armidale, New South Wales.

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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