On literary cliques

One of my favourite genres is the ‘intellectual clique novel’. In these stories, talented outsiders are drawn into small, elite groups whose insularity is enthralling yet dangerous. The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited are two influential examples of the related ‘social clique novel’ (a genre mined, and queered, by Bret Easton Ellis and Alan Hollinghurst). For me, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is the definitive intellectual clique novel, whose imitators include Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals.

I adore real-life cliques, too – from the Bloomsbury Group to the Beats, the Bulletin school to the Sydney Push, the Paris modernists to the McSweeney’s crowd. Intertextually consuming not just their fiction and nonfiction, but also their backchannel chat – letters, diaries, blogs, tweets and Facebook posts – renders the creative process sociable, intellectually effervescent and romantically intimate.

We view cliques not merely as incubators of genius, but also as engines of the zeitgeist – a process driven by the participating writers’ retrospective self-mythologising. ‘Bohemia’, observes historian Tony Moore in his 2012 book Dancing with Empty Pockets, ‘is in part created in the act of its telling, or more particularly, remembering.’

But sometimes we seek to make sense of a tangled, incestuous scene by identifying cliques from outside. Chad Harbach’s edited collection MFA vs. NYC, based on his n+1 essay of the same title, delineates two broad cliques in American letters: postgraduate creative writing programs and big-city freelancing.

In Australia we could speak, perhaps, of Brisbane’s Avid Reader coterie, Melbourne’s Readings crowd, Sydney’s UTS clique or the alumni of Express Media. Some cliques formed through the blogging scene that sprang up ten years ago and that has since been transferred, almost wholesale, to Facebook and Twitter. Others cohere around the editors and contributors of literary journals, including Overland.

Cliques collectively idealise a shared object that comes to define them. This could be a shared admiration for a charismatic leader; a shared town, university, workplace or hangout; shared values, beliefs and tastes; or a shared rejection of dominant cultural modes.

Clique members alleviate feelings of self-doubt and professional vulnerability by seeking reassurance from their peers. They project their hostility and rivalry outwards, calling other writers idiotic, unscrupulous, untalented, over-praised hacks. Cliques are social, yes, but more importantly they are collegial. And what makes them cliques is that they use the logic and language of friendship to promote members’ careers.

I want to stress that I am not ‘having a go’ at cliques. It’s natural to form groups of like-minded souls. (One British clique during the Edwardian period called itself ‘The Souls’.) The salon system of the French ancien régime, widely adopted among today’s literati, allowed groups to cohere around charismatic hosts, while the seventeenth-century London coffee house scene enabled intellectuals to choose allegiances according to their interests and politics.

Indeed, my own experience within cliques makes me sympathetic to the comforting feelings of personal and professional validation they offer. As contemporary writers plying our trade in a crowded, unrewarding market, we all inevitably seek shelter where we can. But it’s important that we recognise – and critique – the ways cliques pursue professional recognition and advancement for their members.

When writers praise each another online (‘Great piece by Joe Blow!’, ‘Joe Blow’s new memoir is one of this year’s most exciting reads’ and so on), it’s a statement of clique allegiance as much as an appreciation of the work itself. Clique members loyally promote one another’s work, genuinely believing it accomplished and important because it mirrors their own tastes and concerns.

But nobody’s writing can be great all the time, and cliques do their members a disservice if they provide a sycophantic echo chamber. Clique logic is parochial and myopic, running the risk of fetishising banality and ignoring innovation.

‘Cliques and networks have their place: they give ideas traction and then momentum,’ Tasmanian writer Adam Ouston wrote on the Overland blog earlier this year. ‘But they are also notorious for being closed circuits where ideas and voices go round and round, catching us in a perpetual state of haven’t I seen this before?’ In the comments, Ouston elaborated: ‘I’m starting to see it more and more, a uniformity of voice both online and in print. A lot of writers are starting to sound the same, same tone, same cities … Even in many cases using the same metaphors.’

Ouston believes institutions such as the Emerging Writers’ Festival can potentially disrupt the solipsism of cliques to ‘unlock and broaden the scope of literature in Australia and beyond’. But equally, festivals, launches and other events can operate as ‘clique marketplaces’ where non-aligned writers shop for boosters.

It’s a cynical thought, I know – but it’s dispiriting to ponder that some wonderful writers in Australia aren’t clique-aligned, and their work consequently doesn’t find the praise it deserves. Perhaps writers only succeed by finding the right clique.

Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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