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EWF reader: Critical Gratitude

I just got my Emerging Writers Festival reader in the mail. hooray for writerly advice and emergentsia in-jokes! i’m reposting my piece from the reader below, with permission.

Critical Gratitude

“If you promote yourself, you will have no success.”
– Lao Tzu

Your dream has come true. Your debut novel is in the shops, you’ve been invited to a few festivals to promote it, and it all feels… weird. Full and empty. Gratifying and humbling. Fun, and sometimes, kind of horrible.

I cut my teeth in punk, anti-capitalist movements and the zine world, where engaging with the mainstream economy is all but spat upon. Having my debut novel, The Diamond Anchor, published by an independent publisher (UQP) might be okay with the punks, but at times it has felt no different from selling out. (I should point out here that I officially sold my soul to Satan in 2007 when I had a short story published in a Murdoch tabloid. Satan gave me a thirty dollar book voucher in return. Another sweet deal in ozlit).

So there I am at the Sydney Writers Festival, first novel in hand, trying to have conversations with people who read, people who write, people who edit, and people who market books. The wharves are a flurry of cappucino froth and literature. There are queues for most of the events and tons of writers that I recognise wandering around. It’s all very Sydney: glamorous, dazzling, intensely capitalist, and mostly a big performance. Someone must be making money here, though it doesn’t appear to be me. I wonder if any of the authors actually are. The publicity people are easy to spot – they shop for their clothes instead of pulling them out of charity bins. After my panel I start feeling like a circus freak. Annie Jones hauling a laptop around the harbour, quivering behind her beard. I quiver behind my knitting for a while and then I have to leave.

After years of regarding myself as a burnt-out activist and seeing writing as a kind of activism – giving a voice to the dispossessed and other egotistical fantasies – I am disappointed to find I have become a travelling salesman. It’s a bit of a headfuck. I’m lucky that I’m good at talking. I don’t get stage-fright and I like attention. Many writers are not that way inclined. People who are good at writing books (and I hope to one day count myself among them) are not necessarily also good at selling them. Or, indeed, talking about them. And yet, if you don’t have a media-friendly persona, the publishing world doesn’t seem to want to know you. They are looking for an angle to distinguish you in the crush of new books and new writers, but you know yourself to be a complex individual who is made up of more than just angles. You have curves and straight lines and scribbly bits. On the upside, journalists will sometimes recast you as the mythical, romantic figure you have always suspected yourself to be. But the process of being marketed is deeply compromising and can actually feel like some kind of identity fraud.

Encountering your readers can be confronting enough. It’s not the readers themselves, but rather the way those encounters are framed. Authors might be plonked on a panel with other authors from a similar ethnic background, for example. Regional authors are often doomed to speak about place. Marketers tick certain boxes and seeing your work jammed into a category and targeted at a certain demographic is unnerving. It challenges the way you think about your work. These challenges are almost certainly good for you, but you need a fairly robust ego to withstand them. And I’m not talking about a huge book tour or a big corporate publisher. I’m talking about an independent and a few festivals. A marketing department of one person who works damn hard, puts her heart into it, and doesn’t get paid enough either.

With festivals, there’s also a time lag. As an author, you are expected to be able to articulate what your intentions were when you wrote the book you are selling, which is likely to be something you came up with three or four years ago and have thought over so much you no longer care. You are asked to justify the choices you made, which is strange, because you work very intuitively, especially with a first book – you are literally making it up as you go along, finding out how you work. But then the world expects you to speak about it like you actually knew what you were doing. Fortunately, most people accept your bullshit. But don’t start believing it yourself, because spin can be poison for the writing voice.

There’s been a lot of talk about how compromising it can be to write and be an activist at the same time. It’s okay to be a parent, partner, teacher, librarian, or dishpig (all intensely political roles, by the way), but as soon as your Wrights and Whites start chaining themselves to trees it’s all over for the literary voice. Let’s assume for a moment that this is true and not some right-wing conspiracy to kneecap public intellectuals. The idea is that the work suffers when you are aware of its political import, and I think that to an extent this is true. I’m a political animal and it’s impossible for me not to think in terms of the point I might be making. But I try hard to push that aside while writing; to work on telling the story and make it stand only for itself, and think about symbols later. This is why ‘Flame Trees’ is a better song than ‘Working Class Man’.

But it’s the politics of the work that gives it meaning for me. The stories that choose me feel necessary. I often write of disempowered, silenced or marginalised people. I come from a specific context; my work is refracted through panes of class, gender, race, geography, experience, and so on. I can’t help but have intentions. Living in Alice Springs makes it impossible for me to forget the intense inequality we live with in ‘the lucky country’. Challenging such hypocritical narratives is important to me.

***

While I’m at the Sydney Writer’s Festival I’m reading Brigid Rooney’s book, Literary Activists, which helps. She analyses several “politically engaged” writers and makes broader observations about the relationship between authors and politics. Rooney reframes the political integrity vs literary integrity debate in a non-polar way. It’s far more complex than a straightforward opposition. Writing and activism inform and relate to one another. Political consciousness can influence your work without detracting from its authenticity. Perhaps it’s not even activism that deadens the creative voice, but ideology, the antagonist of the creative idea. (Marketing, on the other hand, is fine with ideas. It simply channels them to people to whom they might appeal.)

Over scrabble and whiskey with a songwriter friend of mine the other week, we were talking about how being released/published or angling for sales changes you.
‘Do you think you’ll ever speak with your own voice again?’
‘Probably not.’
Sigh. At least the experience of being on the circuit has opened the way for some interesting conversations about integrity.

But maybe I’m just being pre-post-modern here. What can integrity possibly mean when everyone is a product of their context? The writing voice is relative – we all see the world from somewhere specific. As writers of fiction, isn’t it our job to transform that specific(ally imagined) experience into something universal? Hang on, why are the people who decide what “universal” means still a bunch of old white guys in suits?

Whose conversation is this anyway? I’m always aware of the access I have, that my whiteness affords me, that my literacy and decent housing afford me, that my media-savviness and access to technology afford me. I’m grateful for it, and conscious of trying to use that privilege, that opportunity, to do some good.

I don’t think engaging with the public face of the book industry has to be a disempowering experience. For the most part, it’s enlightening, challenging and even fun. But it has made me starkly aware of the intense capitalist mediation of the relationship between writers and readers. Capitalism is not the undisputed winner, but I don’t think writers or readers are winning either. It’s not all about selling books – we are, after all, trying to communicate here. Sadly, at big festivals it is hard to chat with readers. I say sadly, because that relationship is a crucial conversation, a rare treasure that feeds the work and inspires me to read and think more broadly. Sometimes it feels like change happens right there – in the process of talking about the story rather than in the story itself.

The industry isn’t allergic to politics. It can even incorporate forms of activism. Organisations like PEN muster the political clout of authors to, among other things, put pressure on governments to release political writer-prisoners. And you need only look at the recent Productivity Commission report into parallel importation to see that authors (Winton, Flanagan, Carey among them) are not afraid to defend their industry. Imagine if such literary heavyweights battled to protect the labour rights of writers. We could see an end to the exploitation of emerging authors! I dream of a world in which we might one day read the ASA freelance rates without weeping.

There is lots of guff written about creative classes, creative industries, reframing a creative life within acceptable capitalist boundaries. ‘Emerging’ might better be called mainstreaming. And in terms of my holier-than-thou lefty ideals, it’s probably a lot safer to stay outside of that world where I can keep up some delusion of separating myself from exploitation. Being published, especially as an ’emerging’ (read ‘probably doesn’t have to be paid’) writer, can often be a form of exploitation in itself. Writing might be a compulsion, an obsession, a cause. Publishing is a decision not to be taken lightly.

At the NT’s wonderful Wordstorm festival in May 2009, I was on a panel with two author advocates and a small press publisher, discussing how to reach readers amidst the clamour of mainstream bookselling; how to make enough to keep small press and authors going. We pondered the relationship between readers and writers., only to have local poet Carmel Williams get up and point out that capitalism is not the only way to negotiate that relationship. Far from it. We as writers and readers should be inventing better ones. You’re right, Carmel. We should be demanding them.

That’s why we make zines and write blogs and tweet, or whatever the latest thing is. We’re trying to communicate in a noisy world. If it’s community you’re looking for, it might be better not to go for publishing at all. Find somewhere a bit quieter where people have common interests and you’re not asked to conform. (And hey, we all know underground notoriety is cooler than mainstream success).

***

After the book tour, you’re back at the laptop, confronted with the gaping hole in reality that you are still desperate to fill. Your disproportionate level of self-belief has been rewarded, but you are still completely alone with the work. Though being published has opened more doors, you still don’t have any money. If you haven’t burned your author copies to keep warm, you can go and look at your first book on the shelf and smile at it. But it’s just as likely you will frown and wonder how the hell you did it, and whether it’s really worth attempting it again. The spotlight’s few minutes of warmth can leave you feeling cold.

I’m still making zines, still blogging, still working for next to nothing, and yes, I am writing another novel. I think that I have only begun to negotiate the balance between the activist self, the writer self, and the public self. I’m starting to see them as three siblings who will meet often, respect and annoy each other in equal measure, and take alternate shifts of righteous sulking.

It’s not that writing is a form of activism, or that the media wants your soul. It’s that all these things are modes of engaging with other humans in a complex and polyphonic (often cacophonic) world. A world that demands all kinds of compromises: of artistic integrity, of time and money, of love and work. I hope that an awareness of that interplay will not distract me from my work, but rather, that it can make me a better writer. In engaging with the bookselling circuit, I hope that I might maintain this attitude of critical, curious gratitude.

If not, you will find me down at the crossroads under the full moon, burying an old typewriter case in the dust.

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4 Comments

  1. genevieve wrote:

    …iz speechless. You walking study in demonology, you.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:13 am | Permalink
  2. genevieve wrote:

    …iz speechless. You walking study in demonology, you.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:13 am | Permalink
  3. Paul wrote:

    "I'm starting to see them as three siblings who will meet often, respect and annoy each other in equal measure, and take alternate shifts of righteous sulking."

    That is beautiful. I think you write so well you shouldn't worry about all the extraneous bullshit involved in career making. That was is agents, managers and editors and limo drivers are for. Your success is inevitable because you are so spectacularly brilliant at what you do.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  4. jenjen wrote:

    thanks guys… paul, i'm just waiting for everyone else to catch up. where's my limo.

    i think i have a few more years of extraneous bullshit/being exploited ahead of me. lisa dempster's piece says the median income of writers in australia is $11,700. minimum wage is about 28k.

    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 12:06 am | Permalink


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