When asked to explain why he had dedicated his long life to American letters, Gore Vidal hypothesised the existence of two distinct subgenres of ‘writer’. The first he described as operating in the Henry James caste: a writer obsessed—for no discernible reason—with perfecting the subtle arts of written language. Someone for whom, as James himself put it, ‘there is only one recipe—to care a great deal for the cookery’. For these writers, their body of work represents an ongoing experiment with the vast frontiers of language. They live in search of the flawless scene, a numinous sentence—they wander intoxicated by belief in a transcendental sublimity obscured behind the dead space of everyday speech. Enquiring for motives from these linguistically possessed individuals is futile—they are as unable to reveal the source of the desire behind their odd impulses as the moth might be said to understand the allure of the flame.
The second category Vidal proposed was the unhappy soul who, at some pivotal point in their infancy, suffered psychic injury—an intolerable wounding of the self—for which the only remedy was the consoling refuge of the imagination. Whatever enigmatic computational process in the human mind is charged with the interpretation of the world through language, in these benighted psychic cripples the system has been rerouted to conjure up alternate ontologies in which life’s injustices can be undone and remade. Such a crutch, Vidal suggested, becomes so necessary for the subject—and the processes involved so dominant—that the individual ultimately exists in a schismatic state between the unforgiving world of the real and the seductive realm of their own private fictions. To be so torn is to be a permanent émigré between states: to live an excess of lives, all of them in a kind of impoverished ‘not quite’ present. To experience the self as ‘complex and many’ is in a sense to be no-one and nowhere; to preside in envious relation to the unity of the ‘one and simple’. Those who inhabit the in-between world of their own imaginations typically make second-rate citizens of those unmalleable parameters we colloquially refer to as ‘reality’. They lack the consistency, the focus and the commitment to thrive in most daylight vocations. The only suitable recourse open to such ‘complicated’ unfortunates is scratching a living from exploiting their fantastical reflexes.
Having created this dichotomy of the essential writer, Vidal placed himself squarely in the latter category. In his case, the reason for retreat into the imagination was an alcoholic mother. Like most of Vidal’s commentary on matters literary, his psychoanalytic conception of a writerly split between automaton nerd and diseased dreamer is subtly honed to provoke derision from precisely the sort of literal-minded types who would ask such questions earnestly in the first place—assorted journalists, rationalists, theorists, pundits, pedants—those peers, in other words, whom Vidal seemed to delight in antagonising. It hardly matters if the whole idea is a ponderous nonsense. As Alfred Whitehead recognised, it is more important that an idea be interesting than that it be true.
This essay—though you might not have guessed from its beginning— is an insider’s account of the state of Australia’s so-called ‘writing culture’. I begin with the long and dubious digression on Gore Vidal’s ideas because I’ve always been struck by how strangely they fit the writing world as I’ve known it—and despite possessing nary the semblance of a profile myself, I tell you I’ve known it quite well. If nothing else, I have had the privilege of being in contact with countless young and ‘emerging’ writers over the last decade. For the last ten years I’ve run workshops and tutorials and projects and lectures in dozens of schools, universities and writing centres across the country, attempting to teach what little I know about the subject of literacy and literature to whoever is naive enough to listen. Simultaneously I’ve had the strange pleasure of being surrounded by some of our culture’s most celebrated writers, critics and editors. It’s not difficult to do so. The pond is small and the fish are big.
Among the hopefuls I’ve taught, or the accomplished writers I’ve encountered, there are only a tiny fraction who might belong to Vidal’s hypothetical category of the Jamesian word-nerd. From hopeful high schoolers to venerated Miles Franklin clubbers, the overwhelming majority have been of the basket-case variety. Childhood traumas, mental illnesses, immutable shames, neuroses of every colour and shape are the hallmark of the writer in persona. There have been perhaps one or two exceptions I’ve come across (both of them poets), who seemed more concerned with the shape of their sentences than making themselves whole, but that’s it. If such an imbalance alone was not enough to suggest a flaw in Vidal’s configurations, there is also the hollow ring of a bygone era in his distinctions. I suspect a new subset of wounded-psyche-driven figures are in ascendance: those who—borrowing again from the categories above— appear to have dealt with their intolerable damage not by indulging their creative faculties in the consolations of fiction, but with fantasies of finding a home amid those who do.
Rather than retreating into the fecund vortex of other worlds and parallel realities, these dreamers clench their eyes shut and conjure visions of themselves at play, accepted, affirmed, and celebrated within a ‘real world’ community that already exists: their impossible dream is to be welcomed into the bright and glimmering constellation of the arts industry. Crashing against the cruelty and capriciousness of the real, these types—while just as nutty as the poor writer-to-be who has a head full of linguistic ticks and slippages—imagine a kinder, better, softer arena of life awaits them in the open arms and high sentence of the arts community.
Of course, the writer-to-be and the arts community dreamer are not mutually excluded from being one and the same person, but when the latter lacks the former, it becomes impossible to keep those who want to deal with words from colliding with those who’ll do whatever it takes to ‘make it’—and one is far better suited to the clash than the other. The advantage is almost always on the side of the cunning social arts satellite than the demented scribbler. In a culture like ours, one that places so little value on the linguistic traditions and our literary heritage, one in which the education system actively devalues it, those with relatively meagre talents and hopes of escaping into the safe spaces of the arts community often consider the ‘writing’ world an easy option.
Reality TV shows such as Australian Idol, X-Factor and The Voice have taught a generation of Australians that to be involved with music requires being humiliated and exposed for any delusions of talent. Acting, likewise, is off-limits to the ugly and uncharismatic, so there’s no chance there. The plastic arts require a modicum of ingenuity, the learning of a new and obtuse language and an absurd level of tenacity, before one can even begin to bluff their way into its clubhouse. The writing world, as James tells us, is a house of not one, but a million windows—and out of each pane stares some deranged shut-in whose fantasy novel about a dystopian post-apocalyptic planet enslaved by telekinetic Tuataras is a mere decade from being self-published online, or the poet who’s just returned from summer in Berlin and is feverishly devising centos derived from the official UN reports on Australia’s asylum seeker policies to be printed in the form of origami birds.
These aspirant exiles are legion, and among their number are our nation’s future paragons of poetry and prose. Not all of them will make it—exposure, if it comes, will kill more of them than it makes. Nevertheless, I have nothing but love in my heart for each and every one of our literary wannabes—I am one myself, after all, and will likely still be one when I’m laid in the dirt. The wannabe arts dreamer, desirous of making themselves part of this picture but indifferent to its meaning, observes the colossal mosaic of tinkering revenants and their culturally irrelevant obsessions and sees an unguarded hen-house of nervous, leaderless fowls. They goose-step their way into the open borders of the writing culture with nothing on their minds but belonging. And why not? Perceiving themselves as creative, intuitive, passionate people enflamed with a sense of revolutionary zeal born of the resentment they feel towards those with genuine talent, these promising young things soon place their hands on the flesh of our nation’s literary future.
Hearts aflame with envy, bearing gifts of suppression, control and a contagious spirit of nihilism, the social arts hopeful perceives themselves an inherent creative djinn: their existence is a miraculous creative act, and they scorn those who bother to make things in earnest. Writers, in the minds of these ‘change makers’, are block-headed toddlers playing in the sandbox of culture. The arts dreamer has larger game in their sights. Rather than fiddling about with the ephemera of fictions, they are busily revising cultural institutions; rather than the piddle of obsolete publishing fancies such as novels, they are pulling the strings of funding decisions; forget revolutions of thought and consciousness, these visionaries are drawing together the next generation of writers from the dust of our collective cultural vacuum. Given enough support, these ‘king creators’ transcend the literary landscape, they become gods capable of making and unmaking from on high. As the cowardly writers of poetry and prose peek meekly out their share-house windows between deleting and repeating their sentences and stanzas, those with dreams of positions on funding panels and advisory boards take up their call and make meaningful decisions about what will and what will not be in our nation’s language.
The problem is, these uninvited guardians of the language view art as a means to power. In order to ensure claims on their positions, the cunning opinion makers invariably screw down in the direction of a populist consensus within the arts community. They do so because they’re political animals in a way that writers usually aren’t. Artists are uncommonly indifferent to power, which is why they so often struggle to thrive without aid. The arts dreamer, a natural politician, lusts after the small power of the cultural now. They aren’t necessarily powerful people—often all they possess is opinions—but opinion counts for a great deal when working with something as allusive as the arts. Opinion, besides, can be traded for authority if one has an eye for cultural economies. In a few short years, with the right reparations, anyone without a shred of originality or integrity can be holding court and dictating terms for an art form to which they contribute nothing but their lordly presence. The question of talent never comes into the opinion-shaper’s equations. The general consensus of our culture is that there’s no legitimate basis for determining the value of literary talent in the twenty-first century, so possessing it is superfluous, possibly a hindrance, since it will probably make the rest of whichever literary clique one settles into suspicious of a wilfully non-egalitarian nature.
Much of the blame for creating the chasm in our culture from which these deluded demi-gods of arts management have arisen must lie with our universities—and the corrupting influence of ‘creative writing’ courses that serve as cash cows for our beleaguered and fatigued humanities departments. A recent Onion article titled ‘Creative writing professor takes time to give every student personalized false hope’ spread through the halls of my university late last year. Its barb, obviously, was the betrayal of the young and wishful by the peddling of insincerities and fantasies under the banner of creative writing. Every student who sits in on a tutorial is encouraged to believe publication is only a degree away. It is a cruel lie, perpetuated by the complicity of tutors and lecturers who have no option. The directive to avoid the truth—formerly, I’m led to believe, of some concern to the humanities—is driven by the perpetual commandment from upper management to commercialise or perish.
The arts and humanities might do well—our schools and colleges encourage their teachers to internalise—if only they might invert themselves and become something else. Disarmed and disenfranchised, those with the privilege of education, entrusted to pass on the meaning of culture to the young, can only despair as their face-to-face lectures are replaced with online videos, their tutorials with online forums, and the student turns into the client. Enrolment numbers, meanwhile, are looking better than ever (up marginally across the country, according to statistics from the federal higher education department) and those hopeful students who just want to know how to get their novel or their poetry collection published continue to be seduced by a watered-down exposure to literary criticism, kept slyly away from the reality that a high distinction in a creative writing course is no indication of their chances of ever being published.
The average undergrad remains blissfully unaware that the slush piles of publishing houses groan with the weight of rejected submissions from distinguished creative-writing lecturers. Many students, after being ushered through the most adequate training money can buy, have their first real-world encounter with the publishing industry when the doctorate-cum-fictionalised autobiography—a work they’ve spent ten years writing—is rejected by an intern who has happily never heard of René Girard’s mimetic theory, and has no interest in how the author has subverted the ‘immolated victim’ through an account of middle-class disorder in rural New South Wales.
Little wonder then, in a sector of the arts populated by lunatic fantasists who are guided by scholars enslaved to the demands of corporate universities, that those small masters of today who lust for power over the literary world are able to infiltrate our most sacred spaces. And here I might as well drop all pretence: the social climbers of the arts, dragging their legions of Twitter followers behind them like some chain-link serpent’s tail, are not merely overly ambitious arts workers: they are anti-artists in human form. They are incorrigible frauds and fakes. Since it will be called reactionary drivel to say so in the current climate, I might as well pre-empt accusations of Mark Latham levels of bilious, cuckoo filibuster and borrow Holden Caulfield’s refrain: these people are phoneys—and our literary scene is corpulent with the weight of them.
Since it is all too easy to throw around the vague and self-serving assertion that there are vampires in our midst without offering any means by which to spot them, I offer this provisional guide for discriminating the fakes in our lit scene from the genuine article. Simultaneously freewheeling and coherent, the hucksters are nonchalant pundits on every cause and effect in politics and culture. They make wonderful guest spots on Q&A. They tread the boards of public spaces, making off-the-cuff speeches as effortlessly and gracefully as actors, and so they ought; though they lack the good genes to break into popular entertainment, they are born public relations agents for their own brands. Observe their capacity to charm crowds online and in real life without once stepping outside the bounds of accepted bourgeois-liberal consensus like angels twerking on a pin. Their every character trait, from mental illness to class background, is worn as an adornments of generic marker. Need an expert on the working class rural writer? They have one of those. Want someone to stand in as a borderline personality spokesperson? Speak to their agent. As the vibrant antithesis of the genuine, atrophied artist, they inhale and expand the increasing performativity of our literary culture with a glutinous delight in their smiling eyes.
These devious characters can be identified by the breath-taking fervour with which they do nothing at all—and their insistence that anything they do not like is unmade. Only their own private vision of the world deserves life. Anything else is an abomination. Through the rigorous exertions of cultural opinion, they seek to decide who, what, where and when the flowers may grow in the garden. What they can’t nip in the bud, they denounce as a weed in the blooming. To say these types hold nothing sacred is not to accuse them of being profane—they are merely quotidian proponents of a status quo that suits their slimy interests. To be subversive radicals would require them to believe in something other than themselves, and they do not—with the possible exception of their friends.
What they mean by friendship, however, is some nightmarish Zuckerbergian conception of human connection: their work, their brand, their audience, their reason for being. From the centre of their synapse-like social media webs, vibrations of growth potential and social mobility are the only readings to which they are not completely numb. It would be one thing if these sly culture creepers were merely usurping an unfair share of the literary stage, but their repressive influence is one that poisons the lot of us—writers and readers alike. As the pall of their infiltration spreads over the nation, the atmosphere in the literary scene turns from disillusionment to despair. Speak to almost anyone in the fragile literary ecology: the spell of defeat is thick as fog. This might seem hyperbolic, but the sheer magnitude of the malaise these nihilists have brought around our heads is a fatal one.
So then—having endured my screed— you might well ask what proof I have that these malignants exist. Admittedly, the evidence is difficult to produce. I don’t have the nerve to name names, which would be the quickest way to make the case—but I can tell you where they are likely to live. It will come as no surprise that the greatest concentration of these noxious weed-lingerers is to be found in the City of Literature—a town with more literary festivals per capita than anywhere else on earth. This is not to suggest that every writer or writing organisation based in Victoria is the spawn of Satan.
The Melbourne literati mafia may have little ‘real-world’ potency, but that’s not their game. Instead, they rely on an invidious power of suggestion that gnaws its way into the consciousness of young Australian writers. Their grim visage solidifies in the minds of our future writers, creating enough fog and smoke to overwhelm the victim and blind their common sense. In ‘Right Time, Right Place: How the Melbourne Voice Shuts Writers Out’, Jonno Revanche, an Adelaide-based writer, describes the influence of the ‘Melbourne Voice’ on wannabe writers. Confronting the amassed cultural capital of the ‘romanticised’ City of Literature as a young outsider with aspirations of making it in the world of letters, Revanche describes a common feeling of despair: ‘I would continually beat myself up over “not being contemporary enough”, and felt like my honest words simply weren’t valuable.’
Revanche’s account of the Melbourne voice’s ‘oppressive’ influence paints this literary clique-hole as a cultish cabal holding the country’s literary ‘stakeholders’ to ransom. It is an exaggeration of the power wielded by Melbourne’s lit mobsters, and since it played directly to the vanity of these anti-artists, they were quick to laude Revanche’s article as ‘an important and necessary provocation’—the usual descriptor the clique-lords use to describe any opinion piece with which they agree. By contrast, Brigid Delaney’s response piece in the Guardian, which suggested that the so-called ‘Melbourne Voice’ was a paper-thin mythological irrelevance perpetuated by an insular crowd of insufferable literary baristas, was dismissed by the anti-artists as a self-serving ‘think piece’—the descriptor typically used to delegitimise any opinion piece with which the anti-artists and their disciples disagree.
There is, of course, no such thing as the Melbourne ‘Voice’, and the disenfranchising forces against which Revanche and Delaney are unwittingly united in raging against are the stateless anti-artists themselves. At the centre of the incestuous literary vortices sits the centrifugal charisma of an anti-artist in residence, bending the world of Australian letters to suit their narcissistic whims. Although they have undoubtedly accumulated quite a presence in Melbourne, their reach and their connections stretch beyond any geographical borders.
James Tierney’s recent article for the journal Kill Your Darlings expressed this growing level of anxiety in the literary scene under the influence of our anti-artists. In an article titled ‘What Australian Literary Conversation?’, Tierney characterises the titular conversation as ‘one of long silences, punctuated by the occasional loud thud’. Contemplating the spasmodic quiet of our critical dialogue, Tierney remarks: ‘If there is a public literary conversation going it must be well hidden.’ The kind of chatter about arts and culture that Tierney claims we ought to have a great deal more of is apparently exemplified by Slate’s popular Culture Gabfest podcast. It’s an interesting point: why can’t we manage to be as open as our American friends? Why are we so shy whenever the conversation turns to culture?
Perhaps unintentionally, Tierney provides an insight into the reason for our muted literary character when he considers Ben Etherington’s Critic Watch column in the Sydney Review of Books. Tierney praises Etherington’s ‘sharp gaze’, one that, unlike much else that Australian literary criticism has to offer, managed to spark ‘a lot of informal, private responses’ in Tierney’s hearing. It is apparently a rare thing that anyone in Tierney’s earshot is roused by a bit of the old lit critique. Despite recognising Etherington as a decent critic who managed to spark at least some kind of literary chatter, Tierney feels compelled to share with us the ‘concerns’ he has ‘heard’ about Critic Watch, namely ‘that it risks becoming a navel-gazing exercise—that to publicly and polemically consider the craft and broad judgment of Australia’s critical culture could be both self-indulgent and self-regarding, the critical equivalent of a selfie’.
Having expressed these concerns, Tierney then dismisses them as unpersuasive. There is, in Tierney’s odd pulling of the punches he throws without any evident provocation, something bizarrely Australian. If Critic Watch’s critics are wrong, why worry about their anonymous misapprehensions, particularly if, as Tierney suggests, the whole thing is taking place in a vacuum of apparent indifference? Can it really be a coincidence that the only example of a critic who does what Tierney wants our critics to do is the one about whom he feels compelled to publish ‘concerns’ of ‘self-regard’? When Tierney asks ‘what conversation?’ the answer is not the one taking place in print—it is the clandestine dialogue that is forever taking place on the periphery. As a people, Australians are perhaps uniquely sensitive to the kind of censure that Tierney’s projection establishes—it runs deep in our blood to be afraid of ‘navel-gazing’ and ‘self-interest’, derivations of the damning charge of being a wanker.
Since Europeans stamped their dubious authority on its soil, Australia has been an anxious, uncertain colony of a far-flung centre, and our literature (our literary condition) has reflected as much. Our predisposition for an almost paranoid conservativism about arts and culture has perpetuated the idea that these things are inherently isolated from ordinary life, whatever that might be. The literary arts in this country have been abandoned to cultural guerrillas who seek nothing but to further their interests even as they diffuse the miasma of self-censorship and trepidation among our authors and readers while they ascend to power. At present the shadow conversations of the anti-artists are aimed at exploiting the deep fear in our national psyche of the charge of wankery and ‘navel-gazing’ in order to cut down anyone who dares to go against their interests. It’s an old trick of the Australian cultural consciousness—every expression, no matter how legitimate, no matter how substantial, can be tossed to the winds by claiming that the person behind it has a hand down their pants. Our collective fear of our own awkwardness, our vestigial cringe at our own culture, is a powerful weapon in the anti-artist’s arsenal.
The charge of wankerism was one that punctuated the climactic end point of last year’s imbroglio over so-called middlebrow literature. Ivor Indyk’s editorial in the Sydney Review of Books kicked off the controversy, arguing (with deliberate irony) that since the responsibility of discerning a winner from any given sample of current literary works is a duty too great to be entrusted to anybody at all, the money on offer might be better put to other use. Hardly a contentious claim, and there might not have been any hand-wringing on the matter, had it not been for Indyk’s embroiling of the middlebrow’s influence into the mix. Indyk suggested that judges might be beholden to ‘the whine of popular disappointment insinuating itself into their brains’ when considering giving the nod to works that are ‘challenging or innovative’.
Though clothed in the rags of an age-old argument about high and low culture, Indyk’s lament is principally an attack on the insidious anti-artist chorus whose endless droning leaves either side of the cultural debate unable to hear themselves think. Indyk’s real ‘target’ in his article is the nihilistic heckling from the peanut gallery—which holds the language and imagination of a nation in a thrall of self-restraint. Unsurprisingly, Indyk’s prodding of this subterranean consciousness brought a slumberous neurosis roaring to the surface. Debate raged—a definite Tierneian ‘thud’ in our relative cultural silence. Indyk’s conservative ‘neo-Leavisite’ leanings made him a punching-bag for an incensed commentariat, who took great pleasure in dragging such a conservative, white-haired dinosaur out from his professorial cave for a thorough clubbing.
And that, as they say, might have been that, but turning the furore into a frenzy was a second ‘middlebrow’ piece published in the Sydney Review of Books by academic Beth Driscoll. Using novels by Susan Johnson, Antonia Hayes and Stephanie Bishop as exemplars of the genre, Driscoll, author of The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century, discussed the fluid and complex modes of literary appreciation that intersect the contentious terrain of the middlebrow. According to Driscoll, the works of these three authors offer readers, critics and publishers ‘manifold pleasures’. Johnson, Hayes and Bishop did not take this compliment lying down. In a rejoinder published by the Sydney Review of Books the following week, the authors were ‘as one in rejecting’ the label of middlebrow—not to mention ‘startled and offended’ by Driscoll’s ‘collective dismissal of any discriminating powers of intellectual application to our respective works’.
There’s no act more gratifying an author can perform than sticking it to a critic—though this avenging trio demonstrate how much more satisfying it is to do so as a team—and the arguments Johnson, Hayes and Bishop make are persuasive. Hayes, for instance, points to Driscoll’s ‘vague definition of middlebrow’; Bishop is concerned the piece ‘unwittingly quarantines and belittles middle class women writers, their books and a female readership’; and Johnson, whose response is the least vexed of the three, just seems depressed by the whole affair.
The Melbourne-centred lit-scene mobsters were quick to herald the responses of these writers as a watershed moment in Australian letters. Authors, this incident established, were empowered to feel comfortable publically refusing the ‘pulling of rank’ by righteous literary journals, critics and academics—those institutionalised thugs who go about perpetuating hierarchical and ideological abuses against middle-class authors who just want to earn a crust in peace and in public. More troubling, however, was the emphasis placed by the anti-artists on Hayes’ singularly polemical moment. In praising Hayes’ push back against the Sydney Review of Books’ ‘war’ on the middlebrow, the anti-artists chose to focus on Hayes’ dismissal of the journal itself as one specialising in ‘jerking-off’ (by way of reference to Susan Sontag).
This kind of caustic accusation of wankery amid an otherwise measured response to genuine criticism plays directly into the hands of the anti-artists—it reinforces Tierney’s observation that criticism and discussion surrounding literature are often delegitimised by accusation of being a giant wank. Literary culture, such accusations imply, should be driven by more meaningful, purposeful activity than shameful navel-gazing by critics and other unproductive members of society. After all, as Hayes asks, what are these ‘diatribes’ hoping to accomplish? The answer, of course, is nothing.
The ‘diatribes’ hosted by the SRB are themselves acts of culture no less than Hayes’ novel. It is the dogged moralising of the anti-artists that has perpetuated an ideology amid our burgeoning writing culture that there is something other than an autotelic uselessness to be found in writing at all. Art, as the literary critic (and white-haired dinosaur) Terry Eagleton often puts it, ‘exists purely for its own self pleasure’. The anti-artists do their best to supress this idea. In order to justify their positions on committees and in community groups and as festival directors, they need to convey the misconception that someone other than the artist is required to coordinate the manifest destiny of progress’s perpetual march towards utopia through the alchemy of culture and industry.
It would be disingenuous in the extreme not to mention here that Hayes’ final paragraph draws me directly into the middlebrow debate. Accusing Driscoll, Indyk and me of ‘savage rhetoric’, ‘empty intellectualisation’, ideological thinking and ‘jerking-off’ (all things I strenuously deny ever doing), Hayes asks, ‘What are we supposed to do with these theoretical assessments? Indyk says awards are middlebrow, Carman says festivals are middlebrow and now Driscoll says novels are middlebrow.’ Her reference to my view on literary festivals draws on a brief editorial I’d written for the SRB some weeks earlier, and although the editorial wasn’t in praise of lit festivals, I didn’t mention the middlebrow. My accusations of the devilry involved in the festival circuit had nothing to do with their lack of high-mindedness, or the absence of excellence in their line-ups. If anything, I’d wish festivals to be more inclusive and encourage open engagement. Ideally, more people would be reading, buying, talking and thinking about books.
It speaks to the degraded state of our literary life that those within it assume any position that does not endorse their consensus about culture must be arguing for a reactionary, George Brandis sort of high-minded excellence. That someone might have in their mind an ‘underclass’ rather than an elite when they consider the status quo simply does not occur to them. In the view of many of our writers, it seems those who can’t or won’t read simply don’t count—what’s point of them, they seem to think, if they aren’t going to buy your book? This attitude also explains why the issue of sport is so commonly raised at literary events. Legions of self-identifying readers seem compelled to ask why so many people are seduced by the cult of sport when the answer is obvious: most people in this country care about sport because most sport cares about most people.
To be clear—despite lumping me in with the ‘empty-headed wankers’ who went and stepped on the middlebrow, I don’t for a second hold Hayes’ zeal against her—I’d be angry too if someone claimed my work was readable—but had I known the SRB was engaged in a war on the middlebrow, I would have been much more circumspect in writing editorials. If the Sydney Review of Books had informed me of their all-out war against middle-class writers and middlebrow readers when they approached me for an editorial on the subject of festivals, I might have kept mum about the whole business. If I could have foreseen the literary goons who pay visits to my office in order to inform me that I’d never again be invited to another festival—why I’d change my mind in a heartbeat.
Even close colleagues found it hard to back my decision to put anti-establishment thoughts into print, pointing out that it was ‘unprofessional’ to sour my relationship with the literary scene by being critical of it—though what level of professionalism a fiction writer is expected to follow, I’m sure I don’t know. No doubt this essay will be subject to the same accusations of being a self-serving whine from a writer who ought to stick to his day job. Except this self-indulgent nonsense is my job—and it’s my solemn duty to tell the truth.
When asked why he gave away his side-gig as a politician, Gore Vidal replied that the politician’s task is never to give the game away, while the writer must always tell the truth, as he or she sees it. The two domains, Vidal explained, are non-compatible majesteria. At present the anti-artists, more concerned with acquiring power than with the arts world they inhabit, risk inverting the relationship between art and the art of politics—and we risk losing our artists and our cultural diversity to the wasteland of inhuman blandness and concern for consensus that long ago consumed the political class. The truth, meanwhile, doesn’t always play for great marketing—to paraphrase Indyk—it’s often in hostile relation to popular appeal and opinion. So-called high culture has no greater claim to the truth than does the low. What art demands and depends on is a culture that is free to express its truths, whatever they might be.
At the moment, as I type out the end of this rather odd essay, a violent storm descends on my home in the western suburbs. Rain is spilling over the guttering, thunder shakes the floorboards underfoot and the ghost-gums spread towards the city are roiling in heavy winds. It’s an ominous scene and it fills me with a primal kind of dread. When I spoke to colleagues about the essay I was intending to write, they warned me that if I lashed out against the anti-artists in our midst, I’d bury my own career—I’d never, they said, be published by a literary journal in this town again. I’m not so sure about that.
The recent massive cuts that vivisected funding for the literary sector at the end of last year were devastating. Seizure, the Lifted Brow, Island and the Sydney Review of Books were just a few of the organisations doing great work that will have to do or die without support this year. It’s not an optimistic time for those fighting it out in our literary coliseum—but there is a silver lining: the anti-artists have taken hits too. Our resident fakes are hurting almost as much as everyone else. So with crisis comes opportunity. Right now the gatekeepers are off their game, and there’s never been a better time to burst out of the confines they have imposed and make your way in this strange little world, being as strange as you like in the process.
There’s not a lot this rather unusual tirade can hope to do about the proliferation of anti-artists in our ‘writer culture’. In part, the problem of extricating ourselves from their influence is that it presents in different forms depending on whom you ask. For Indyk, when judges subsume their own beliefs for the sake of some invidious idea of popular appeal, we all suffer. Similarly, when Tierney asks ‘what Australian literary conversation?’ then summons up the ghost of colonial uncertainty against the only critic he can bring himself to compliment, he demonstrates precisely why our critical culture is so haunted by silence.
When Jonno Revanche tells us that they and other emerging writers are under the thumb of institutions and organisations that are supposed to empower our young artists, we have no reason to doubt them and we should be alarmed that the situation is so. When the decay is so subtle and so deeply entrenched, there’s not much point dreaming of an antidote. But if I am able to give advanced warning to even one young scribbler about the senselessness, doubt and despair our anti-art overlords are inculcating in our so-called culture industries, if I can keep even one voice from being caught up in their dull manipulations, then I’ll be more than glad to give up my hopes of being invited down to the wharf to break canapes with all those cynical shysters with champagne flutes glowing in their eyes, and business cards clutched in their hands.