Overland is led by a collection of editors working at a time when the long-fought for goals of generations before have begun to provide dignity and opportunity for writers from marginalised communities. The Australian media and entertainment landscape is entangled in a continuing struggle for ethical and responsible representation, and we at Overland recognise our need to be accountable to the structural conditions in which we participate.
Earlier in the year, we conducted a review of the journal’s processes for assessing submissions and prizes. Like many others, our prizes are judged blind: all submissions appear anonymously, and writers are advised not to include names or other markers of personal identity. Theoretically, this process emphasises the quality of individual work over reputation, and limits cronyism, which remains rife in the literary sector.
However, our previous judges recurrently encountered difficulties where certain submissions made conspicuous use of dialects and signifiers of marginalised identities – Aboriginal English being the most frequent. Multiple circumstances arose in which judges could not be absolutely confident in their assessment of the creative or ethical ambitions of a piece. We heard of many instances of cultural appropriation, and other occasions where submissions that spoke directly and authentically to personal experiences of injustice in unconventional and experimental ways could not be confidently endorsed. In each instance, these submissions were discussed by an experienced and diverse judging panel, yet the ‘blind’ aspect of the process interfered with fair assessment. Removing markers of identity does not place a text in a political or cultural vacuum. It is unreasonable to expect judges to behave as though it did.
The situation is complex. One of its contributing causes is the regrettable fact that in contemporary Australia many sympathetic and well-meaning writers are insufficiently educated in Indigenous cultures, or other contexts of marginalisation. Regardless of what we or our individual judges feel about these acts in a literary context, Australia has long histories of artistic blackface and cultural fraud, and it would be naïve to ascribe good intentions to every one of the many thousands of writers who submit to us each year. It is particularly difficult to assume good faith in a number of cases where writers conspicuously make use of Indigenous dialects in blind submissions but eschew them in writing that is judged under their own name.
Rather than overturning wholesale the entire institution of blind-judging, our initial response has been to append an online form to our prizes, in which an entrant is given the option – and we cannot stress this noun enough – to specify whether they identify with the community represented in the piece. The response is only visible to internal editors, not to the judges involved in individual prizes, and it’s clearly stipulated that we would only consider providing that information to judges if a situation arises in which they feel it necessary.
In truth, we expected little engagement with the question itself, but hoped it might encourage writers to think actively about their proximity to the stories they tell. Our process cannot reverse circumstances of exploitation, appropriation, silencing or other mistreatments of the literatures and experiences of the oppressed and marginalised, nor do we feel it conflates these with all other acts of literary imagination. Our experiences have indicated that blind-judging is, in certain contexts, a limited convention. We intend this procedure as a minor alteration to the process that will only become relevant in a small number of cases, as a targeted response to a specific problem. The question neither states nor implies retribution for writing outside one’s experience. Rather, it provides an optional context for judges, should they seek it. This is not a radical essentialist pivot, or a profound shift away from aesthetic value on the part of a respected literary journal. As such, we made no fanfare, and sought as much as possible to normalise the procedure. We consider it one small step forwards in a hopefully industry-wide movement towards fairness in prize-judging.
As Overland’s editors, we welcome criticism and engagement from writers and readers, and in this instance, we feel that it’s fitting to respond to some of it, to clarify our intentions, and correct some misinterpretations of our decisions.
Whatever your opinion of the sweeping movements of culture war touched on by Shriver, Smith, and Rundle et al. concerning grand questions of the interstices of authenticity and value, we doubt that a fair-minded reader will fail to acknowledge that Australian literature has some problems in this regard.
From Patrick White’s fanciful depiction of cannibalism in A Fringe of Leaves (1976), to Katharinne Susannah Prichard’s eugenicist novel Coonardoo (1929), to the primitivism in Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941) and the association of a distinctive nationalism with the removal of Aboriginal presence in Henry Lawson’s Bush Undertaker (1892), the problem is ubiquitous in our history. The above catalogue is far from exhaustive, and it is far from clear that the representation of Indigenous peoples in contemporary writing resolves or escapes this problem. In 1994, Helen Darville published The Hand that Signed the Paper under the nom de plume Helen Demidenko, under the pretext that the novel was informed by interviews with her fictional Ukrainian relatives. It won the Vogel Literary award, the Miles Franklin, and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. It has also been consistently criticised as anti-semitic. Darville, who now goes by Dale, interviewed the Holocaust-denier David Irving in 2000, and has since been repeatedly accused of plagiarism. Other issues arising from judgement and representation were more recently demonstrated by the debate spurred by publishing decisions made earlier in the year at Verity La, and by an inadequate and ill-considered editorial response to writers who raised their concerns before and after the fact.
The new procedure is a specific response to a specific problem in the context and history to which we are all, as Australian editors, writers, and critics, ethically responsible – not a concession or coup by the identitarian far-left. Its application remains subject to specific circumstances and the preferences of our judges. Having said that, Overland is and has always been avowedly left and explicitly radical, so we find the element of surprise in some of the responses to this decision puzzling, to say the least.
While we don’t regard our decision as a policy statement regarding unilateral questions of value, authenticity, and appropriation, we will take a moment to note how misleading this kind of straw-man argument is. Yes, all writing is obviously subject to arbitrary codes of linguistic signification and genre, and it is therefore and to that extent always inauthentic. When we speak of fiction and poetry, there are complicated levels of inauthenticity involving willing suspension of disbelief, and negative capability. When done well, those ‘in-authenticities’ can be some of the most interesting, and even in certain ways the most ethical things about fiction: an undiscovered conscience, as Joyce puts it, a vision of a better possible world.
But, within the compass of that broad truth stand myriad material inequities and usurpations, and an authentic, that is – an accurate and engaged representation of the stakes and conflicts involved in those inequities – will, in our personal and professional opinion, always matter more than an artist’s abstract freedom to write whatever they want. We are of course, not even denying this freedom – we’re merely refusing to privilege it at the risk of sidelining authentic articulations of difference and marginality. The debate which emerged from our decision should not fixate on our assumed challenge to the right of imagination, but instead consider why acknowledging and being accountable to it is such an uncomfortable suggestion for some writers.
Further, the false opposition erected in arguments like these, between authenticity and aesthetic value, drags with it some dubious assumptions, not least the one that a writer of a particular experience is somehow less likely to be talented, educated, or disciplined.
This aestheticist argument assumes – baselessly, from what we can tell – that, given their privileged freedom, a writer will capture the interiority and experience of someone radically different from themselves, or the grit and the subtlety of a radically different society, and that a censorious leftist sensibility impedes this utopian exchange. It implies that a writer will somehow be able to achieve this feat without the community contact, education, and reciprocity which, properly entered into, would have rendered their writing ethical in the first place. Simply put, this is a fantasy. There are many great cross-cultural works of literature. They are, however, overwhelmingly the product of the kind of complex and substantial experience, relationships, and research that proves these binary arguments to be superficial and irrelevant to good writing. And that is the real point about appropriation: it’s not that it’s unethical to learn a language or wear a hat on an even-playing field. It is that writing badly, casually or surreptitiously about the uneven field of history – like Darville did – belittles its tragedies.
There are many kinds of literary value, pleasure, and nourishment. Some are ethical, some are social or political, and some are indeed purely formal. Under our stewardship, Overland will continue to publish and foster all of these, and their various cross-pollinations, as much and as often as we can.
Finally, the suggestion that this procedure might somehow be motivated by fear of recrimination or reprisal protests, we think, a little too much. It suggests an unfamiliarity with who we are, our work, and the depth and vitality of our relationships with the judges, writers, and readers of Overland who have always fought for social progress.
We are proud of the writers we publish, and of the writers celebrated by our prizes. All we offer in this decision is a movement towards transparency and accountability in this industry. We hope it invites engagement, discussion, and integrity.
Evelyn Araluen, Jonathan Dunk, Claire Corbett, Toby Fitch and Giovanni Tiso
Image: David Boyd, Intruder in the Hunting Groups (detail)