In 1305, the adjective ‘divine’ in English meant ‘of a god’. By 1470, a weakened sense of the word had evolved, meaning ‘excellent’. In the same period, the etymology of the verb form involved the idea ‘to make out by supernatural insight’. By the early 15th century, another concept emerged in association with the verb ‘divine’: the act of guessing.
What’s most interesting is that this shift parallels a change in the way western culture understood creativity. Prior to the Renaissance, a ‘genius’ was a guardian or spirit that watched over a person from birth. During the Renaissance, this spirit comes to reside within. Before, everyone had a ‘genius’. After, and through the last six centuries, persons of great talent—and only those persons–are said to possess genius.
When genius resides outside of the human mind, it is strong, supernatural, full of god. Once genius is seen to reside within the human, the meaning of ‘divine’ undergoes pejoration, the process by which connotations of a word become less favourable. While the meaning of ‘divine’ is still positive, it’s less so. The human genius may produce something excellent, but it’s something not quite as ‘full of god’ and perhaps created only by guesswork.
This may partly explain why artists and writers are so often disappointed with the final results of their creative work. In the early flush of an idea, all seems possible. We are closer to the earlier connotations of ‘divine’. Our imagination is capable of conceiving something of the gods, full of god; but our human capacity is weaker than our imaginations.
The imagined divine is a distant horizon, receding as we approach.
For an interesting take on the idea of creativity and genius, hear Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, give her inspiring views on TED.com.
Searching for marriage in literature is like holding a kaleidoscope to the world—at the slightest movement the arrangement, colours, shapes, angles, relationships, and mood are altered. In literature as in life, there are good marriages and bad, good marriages that turn bad, and marriages that on any one day one shift from blissful to hellish and back. Compiling a list of representations of marriage in literature is a daunting task—so much is devoted to the theme. It goes without saying that the list you compile today wouldn’t necessarily be the one you’d put together tomorrow. Here is but one view from the kaleidoscope:
Epithalamium (Greek and Roman times)
Among the Greeks, the epithalamium is a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, sung by boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. Among the Romans a similar custom was in vogue, but the song was sung by girls only…
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What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:
“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.
This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing. It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? How much editing?
Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.
The gifted Keith Corcoran has spent his life working towards the dream of becoming an astronaut. With a skill for mathematics, many years of dedicated training, and the support of a loving family, Keith at last succeeds. His life’s effort culminates in a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. Tragically, in the middle of his tour, his teenage daughter is involved in a car accident; and yet, Keith’s professionalism will not allow him to cut the mission short. When he does return to earth, he finds his family broken, his house empty, and himself adrift.
Forced to take a leave from work and struggling to cope with his grief, Keith mechanically prepares his house for sale. Almost immediately, he meets Jennifer, an attractive neighbour, and they embark on a confusing, misguided affair. In the sterility of suburban America, Keith sinks more deeply into a consuming depression. It’s only when he befriends Peter, an oddball Ukrainian immigrant with a passion for stargazing, that Keith has an opportunity transcend the loss that’s overtaken his life.
The Infinite Tides, Christian Kiefer’s debut novel, is beautifully written. The book is full of lyrical passages, poetic descriptions of space, time, and mathematics, and moving evocations of a grieving man’s inner life. But this is exactly the novel’s weakness. The narrative is often interrupted by these literary flights. More attention to developing the characters and deepening the interactions between them would have served Kiefer better. Still, The Infinite Tides is a worthy first effort, delicate, moving, and oddly tender.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in January 2013.
In search of dreams in literature
Films like TheMatrix and Inception have brought together many of the philosophical and psychological dimensions of a literary tradition that dates back as far as Homer. In literature, dreams occur as religious visions, as symbols, as messages, as reflections of philosophical ideas. Dreams appear in art in order to expose our anxieties, our wishes, our desires for escape. And for writers like Murakami, dreams have even become a methodology for storytelling.
Cædmon (?), The Dream of the Rood, 7th century
An intriguing early English example of the genre of dream poetry, The Dream of the Rood is set up with the narrator dreaming of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Details of Christ’s mission on earth are outlined, the dreamer exhorted to share what he has dreamed. What makes this story utterly charming is the way the biblical story collides with…
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Joanne Harris, the acclaimed author of Chocolat, departs from sunny characters and a feel-good story in her latest work, blueeyedboy.
‘blueeyedboy’ is the online name of Benjamin Winter, a troubled man who joins a creative writing forum. Group members post chapters of their works-in-progress, comment on those of others, and occasionally get together. Benjamin’s posts are particularly imaginative—and very dark. blueeyedboy’s life is bleak, full of abuse. He’s learned early that lies can save. There are messed-up relationships, black secrets and disappointments, all of which build to a festering rage. It becomes clear that Benjamin and blueeyedboy are one; it’s also clear his murderous fury has been acted upon many times before. Through his writing, Benjamin manipulates those around him in order to perpetuate his latest plot, something monumental this time, something to change blueeyedboy’s life.
blueeyedboy resembles the old-fashioned epistolary novel, with posts serving to create a ‘real-time’ psychological build-up. This format is problematic, however. Some posts are ‘publically’ available; others are ‘restricted’. In order to follow the clues, the reader is required to keep track of which information is known to all characters, which is known to some, and which is exclusively for the reader. Past and present become jumbled. Illogically, events are sometimes written about in post form as they are unfolding. The retrospective voice would have worked better in these cases. While the posts of other characters offer different perspectives, it’s never clear what is true and what made-up. Here, fiction is presented mostly as a game of wits. Identities shift, facts blur, others emerge more devious than the blueeyedboy.
While confusing, it’s also intriguing fun. Harris’s big problem is that, unlike the main characters in Chocolat, those ofblueeyedboy are so awful, so dysfunctional and arrogant and chillingly cruel, it’s difficult to really care about what happens to any of them.
Review first published in April 2010 in The Courier-Mail.
As I prepared for a week on a houseboat with my family of five, I found myself unable to let go of my ‘desk’. I packed it in miniature: two notebooks with works-in-progress, a folder of articles related to my work, three books from my current reading list, as well as recent editions of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. I even brought along my laptop, knowing full well that the electricity, space, and privacy required to write were all unlikely.
Two hours out of the marina, dusk fell at the moment we chugged into a mud bank and came to a standstill. There was hope though. The tide was rising. Surely we would float off, we all agreed optimistically. We made dinner and played board games and went to bed early. My husband woke me at 2.00 am.
Nothing. The comforting sound of water slapping against the hull had ceased. We were perched on mudflats two hundred metres in all directions. Oops.
The morning tide was higher and we broke free. After strong coffee and in good spirits, we headed off towards clearer waters. Then, the motor failed. We spent the day drifting, waiting for the mechanics, playing monopoly and backgammon, joking about our ‘holiday’. Through it all, although I never unzipped the backpack with my books and notebooks, I was comforted by the fact that it was with me.
Eventually, it was determined that the motor could not be fixed. The mechanics towed us back to the marina, returned our money, and sent us home. Back in Brisbane, we brought all the bags in from the car.
“Don’t unpack. We’re leaving in the morning.”
After some calls, my husband had found a replacement vacation: The Hyatt-Regency in Coolum, in luxurious accommodation that was the complete opposite to our broken-down little houseboat in the Gold Coast’s Broadwater. Unfortunately, the backpack with my work didn’t make it into the car that second time, and I arrived in our luxury house without anything to read.
I wasn’t panic stricken or anything. We were close enough to civilization for me to find a book or two. Intellectually, I knew that I could always buy a notebook to write in. But I did have a flustered moment or two. Not having my bag with me recalled other times in my life—traveling in Thailand and Egypt, for example—when I’d read everything I brought with me, and I was at the mercy of the books others had left behind in the guest houses I stayed in. There was always a rickety shelf in the lobby with books you could borrow or swap. The Clan of the Cave Bear, Bonfire of the Vanities, something always by Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Tom Robbins—these were the things you’d find. There would be a Penguin or two, which I’d always scramble for. They were usually something I’d read already—Jane Eyre or The Picture of Dorian Gray—but always worth a second (or third!) read.
At the beach house in Coolum, with an evening stretching out in front of me with nothing to read, I began fossicking for the books others left behind. This is what I found: four gossip magazines—an OK! from November and another from February, plus two New Ideas, both from 2008; Mistress of the Game by Sidney Sheldon; Dead Man Running, an insider’s story of one of the world’s most feared motorcycle gangs; Please Explain by Karl Kruszelnicki; Storm Tactics, a handbook for survival in extreme conditions; a book by Jackie Collins; Nip ‘n’ Tuck by Kathy Lette; and A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher, someone I’d never heard of.
I immediately rejected the Sheldon and the Collins. They would only make me cranky about the publishing industry and the undemanding reading public. I wasn’t too keen on the motorcycle story either. Even though it was non-fiction, I didn’t expect the writing to be captivating enough to hold my attention through the distractions of a family holiday. Considering our recent experience on the houseboat, I put Storm Tactics aside to have a look at. Dr. Karl always has something interesting to say, but a quick glance revealed that his book was directed to a younger audience. That left Lette and the newcomer, Fisher.
Nip ‘n’ Tuck is the perfect holiday reading—funny, shallow, satirical, perpetuating stereotypes—one of those ‘rollicking’ reads everyone refers to as a book for the beach. This was my opportunity. I would probably never encounter this book again. But I also took down the Fisher book. From the cover, it looked to be a western, not really my thing, but it was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and this made me curious.
It was the surprise of the week. I read the opening paragraphs and continued on to chapter two and three and four, mesmerized. Over the next few days, I stopped for meals and playtime with my family, but part of me remained in the vivid world Fisher creates. A Sudden Country is set along the Oregon Trail in 1847, the fourth year in which hundreds of families crossed the Missouri River and left the United States for the Oregon Territory.
The story centres around the genteel Lucy Mitchell, who sets out reluctantly with her impassioned, idealistic husband Israel and their five children. The well-stocked wagons that departed from Iowa are steadily depleted of supplies. Like many, Lucy foolishly neglects to ration in the early months, and they face weeks of harsh deprivation as the journey progresses. “Remember apples?” one of the children asks another.
Through the journey west, the pioneers are similarly stripped of ideals, materialism, their former selves. In one scene, faced with a treacherous river crossing, the wagons must be lightened. No one hesitates. With seasoned pragmatism, they dump the Belgian carpets, the carved dining set, the incidental tables, hutches, settees, crystal chandeliers, and the most treasured items of all: the books. The children amuse themselves by playing house. They spread the rugs and arrange the furniture into open-air rooms. Looking back as her wagon crosses the river, Lucy sees the artefacts of her old life grow smaller and smaller and finally disappear, left to snakes and grizzlies, wind and sand.
This is a gorgeous love story told in poetic, dreamlike language. It’s also a tale of grit and survival, impeccably researched. That Fisher combines such a delicate style with such detailed historical facts shows her artistry as a writer. I grew more and more curious about her.
I’ve since learned a few things. She’s directly descended from Lucy Mitchell, the real life figure on whom she bases her female protagonist. She’s worked as a wrangler, teacher, farmer and carpenter, all of which is evident in the depth and detail of her storytelling. A few years ago, Fisher stumbled across some documents—a couple of letters, a child’s account of the crossing—which sent her on her own journey of discovery.
When asked about her writing experience in an interview, Fisher, who’s had no formal training, cites the books she loves as her most pronounced influence. She names Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier and Carol Shields as the writers she most admires. Their influence is present in Fisher’s shimmering prose and the underlying emotion of her characters. Most interesting to me, however, is Fisher’s claim to be particularly indebted to Patrick White. The moment I read this, I could see the ways in which White has influenced how she depicts the consciousness and self-consciousness of her characters. It makes me hanker for works by Australian writers who use White as a model and for new sweeping novels about the early days of this country.
I finished A Sudden Country the day before my holiday was over. During a swim in the ocean and over a long afternoon walk, I let the mood of this moving story hang over me. Later when I packed up, I was tempted to tuck the book in my suitcase. Then, I thought of the next guests. I imagined that the very next week, another person will arrive, pick up this book from the pile, wonder about the little-known author, read the opening pages, and experience the delightful surprise of being transported to another world entirely.
PS I don’t think I will ever end up reading Nip ‘n’ Tuck, but with happy surprises like A Sudden Country on the shelf, I don’t mind.
Lion’s Head, Four Happiness: A Little Sister’s Story of Growing up in China
Coriander, chilli, ginger, spring onion, star anise and sesame—these are only a few of the flavours wafting from the pages of this unusual memoir of food and culture. Xiaomei Martell, the youngest of four daughters, was born on the Mongolian steppes in 1964, just two years before the launch of the Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Hardship and political threat dominate her early life. Birthdays are humble occasions, marked only by an extra egg that day—or, in summer, an extra peach. During the frigid winter months, there are no vegetables other than cabbage. The loss of ducks in a sandstorm becomes a family tragedy. It’s no wonder, then, that Martell’s recollections of her life revolve around food.
She weaves in details of Chinese cuisine little-known in the West. ‘Lion’s Head’, for example, is dish from the south, its origins traced back to the sixth century. The meatballs of ‘Four Happiness’ refer to affluence, health, harmony, and joyfulness. There are stories about hundred-year-old eggs, noodles, dumplings, milk tea, pig trotters, and much more.
For those interested in the history of the Cultural Revolution, Lion’s Head, Four Happiness might disappoint. Like everyone in China, Martell’s family and neighbours were touched by Mao’s campaign. Red Guards, re-location and re-education all figure. But these events tend to be minimised in Martell’s book, serving only to trigger associations with meals shared or missed out on or fantasised about. Martell’s emphasis is on food and, because cuisine is at the heart of both the home and the culture, it’s a clever organising principle. Lion’s Head, Four Happiness is a fascinating hybrid: part memoir, part cookbook, part cultural history— all in all, one hundred per cent readable.
Lion’s Head, Four Happiness: A Little Sister’s Story of Growing up in China, Xiaomei Martell, Random House Australia.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in June 2009.
Cut It Out: The Editing Process
The call ends. I sit for a moment cradling the phone. Reviewing the conversation, I arrive at the final heave-ho: I’ve been asked, in the most polite terms, to cut my manuscript by one-fifth. That’s 25,000 words.
The usual suspects
I begin with the obvious and search through the document for words to contract. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that as much as I might wish it, I don’t have 50,000 opportunities to turn ‘it is’ and ‘did not’ into ‘it’s’ and ‘didn’t’. I’ll need other strategies.
Hmmmn. I remember that Graham Greene hated adverbs and claimed never to use them. Although adverbs promise emphasis, they often do the reverse. They often empty a sentence of meaning, sucking out force and verve. Surely, my manuscript has a few hundred injudicious adverbs I can cut.
Next I turn my critical eye to repetitions. What seemed so interesting, poetic and lyrical in the passion of composition now strikes me as overdone (not to mention a good opportunity to get rid of some words). There are a few scenes where I leave in certain repetitions because it heightens the emotional tenor. These are made stronger now by the fact that repetitions are less frequently used.
I recall the criticism of the judge of a competition I once entered. In the kindest terms, she suggested that the dialogue in my submission was weak. After the initial sting eased, I reread it, and she was right. In getting to know my characters, I let them babble. This time through the manuscript, I cast a critical eye on every spoken word and ask: Is this statement essential to the story? Does it move the plot forward? Does it reveal something crucial about the characters? If I can’t answer yes, I cut it.
A quick word count shows I have 19,000 words to go.
In medias res
In the middle of all of this drafting and cutting, I’m asked to judge a regional writing contest. The winning entries all begin in the middle of things. The other judges and I concur that this brings about an immediacy and an excitement the other entries lack. In fact, many of the submissions make the mistake of starting too far back, lacing the work with details and cross-hatching a history that pulls the narrative down. I race back to my desk in a flurry, wondering whether scenes in my novel do this too.
In medias res is Latin for ‘into the middle of things’. Described by Horace in ‘Ars Poetica’, in medias res is a literary and artistic technique in which the narrative starts in the middle of the story instead of from its beginning (otherwise known as ab ovo or ab initio). It’s a handy way to create interest, movement and suspense. This not only applies to the complete narrative but also to chapters and scenes within chapters.
Think about it. One of the most interesting things about meeting someone new is how much there is to learn. Knowing everything about someone or something straight off and in strict chronological order is dull. Much of the fun is in the discovery. If readers are cast into the middle of an unfolding action, their interest will be captured more readily than if they’re asked to wade through lengthy curriculum vitae that gradually brings them up to the present moment.
Peter Bishop, the Creative Director of the Varuna Writers House says the weakest part of a novel is usually the first one hundred pages. Inexperienced writers often include extra material to help them gain momentum in writing their story. This doesn’t necessarily help with the momentum of the story itself. I’m not saying don’t write it. If it helps you get moving, by all means, put it in. But at some point, once the story is running on its own power, let it go.
When I follow this advice, I cut thousands of leaden words.
The movement of an iceberg
Hemingway once said: “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one/ninth of it being above water.”
I ponder this. For me, much of the fun of writing a novel lies in getting to know my characters. I let them talk, ramble, babble, dream incoherently, waste time, flirt with the wrong people, take up hobbies. Much of this goes nowhere. But sometimes it reveals interesting directions.
For example, I’m working on something now that’s not intended to be a love story. I think of it as my ‘political’ work. In it, I want to be as far away from issues of domesticity as possible. I particularly don’t want to write about sex and love.
Well. That prohibition is all my characters need to sneak around. Suddenly, sexual tension is all over the place. Everybody desires everybody else.
I’ve given in. I find myself writing passages in which characters flirt with each other, get close to consummation, but pull back at the last moment when they realise that’s not what they want after all. I have no idea where any of this will lead, but my experience tells me it won’t hurt the story. It might distil down to one small sentence, the merest shrug of a shoulder or a knowing curl of the lip, something tiny and veering-towards-insignificant to indicate to the reader that my characters are living, breathing individuals.
A friend of mine, speaking about his research students, points out that there tends to be two kinds: the ones who adds to the research problem, whose thesis gets bigger and bigger as they go along, and the ones who subtract, who end up with a question and, in many cases, an answer that is nothing more than a statement the obvious. I’m of the first type. When I write, I throw in everything. When the time is right, I axe it. But the spirit of all that work is never gone.
It becomes part of the eight/ninths that is under water.
Splitting the atom
I have 7,000 words still to cut.
My agent suggests I skeletonise the manuscript, track it scene by scene in a table in order to get a different view of pacing and motivation. This proves to be a fascinating task. For each scene, I outline the point of view, how the plot is advanced, the tone, motivation, and word count. What presents itself is really interesting.
For example, with minor shifts, sets of scenes seem to group together naturally. For the first time, chapters—real chapters—emerge. Only now do I realise that what I’ve had in place before this was merely a string of scenes more or less arbitrarily clumped together, kind of like the way empires divide up conquered lands, drawing lines on maps without regard to languages, customs, and age-old hostilities. As the world has seen, such artificial boundaries create huge problems down the line.
For me, caught up in the grinding machinery of producing a long manuscript, pacing seems less crucial than getting the characters right. I find that like young children, plotlines demand constant attention so as not to wander off, and one eye at least must also be kept on themes. In the process, pacing gets no attention except a prayer every now and then that it please, please look after itself. And it does. It’s there—buried sometimes—but actually present throughout. Skeletonising the narrative allows me to see the natural flow of the story.
It also helps me to see the brickwork. Because I’ve done a word count of each scene, the longer ones really stand out. Looking more deeply, I realise that these are scenes that include detailed back story and a tremendous amount of psychoanalysis. As discussed above, the back story is a crucial part of developing the narrative. Much of it is a way for the writer to orient himself, to gain momentum, to create a different world for the characters to inhabit and for the reader to visit. And psychoanalysis really helps to flesh out, strengthen and test the characters’ motivations. However, neither belongs in later drafts. The back story is for you, the writer, not for the reader. Ditto the psychoanalysis.
Go ahead and explain what’s going on in the heads of your characters. This will do a lot to make their actions true. Later on, read the passage without the long digressions. I bet it’s stronger.
The mark of a really good book
When I’ve cut out all the bad writing I can find, when I’ve pared back to what is essential to the story, there’s still more to do to cut my manuscript by 25,000 words. I have to look at the good stuff with a critical eye. This is painful, really painful. It doesn’t feel any longer like changing out of ill-fitting clothes or getting a dramatic hair cut. It feels as though I’m parting with a limb.
Lillian Ross, a writer for The New Yorker, once spent two days in 1949 with Ernest Hemingway on his way from Havana to Europe. Her piece about the episode is one I admire for its breathless energy. You really get a sense of Hemingway the man. He’s lost his spectacles and must have a new pair made before the ship sails. He needs a winter coat, and they duck into a shop on Madison Avenue, where his boredom and impatience is beautifully captured. Ross overhears a phone conversation he has with Marlene Dietrich with whom he always flirted but never became romantically involved.
On the second day, she arrives at his hotel room at eight in the morning. He greets her with a glass of champagne poured from a bottle already nearly empty. He’d been up for hours with his muse and wears the flush of having achieved something remarkable. He speaks excitedly about his latest work and, opening another bottle, tells Ross, “The mark of a really good book, you know, is how much good writing you cut out of it.”
Horace, “Ars Poetica” (translated by Francis) http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/horace/horacepo.htm.
…To the grand event he speeds his course,
And bears his readers with resistless force
Into the midst of things, while every line
Opens, by just degrees, his whole design.
Ross, Lillian. ‘Portrait of Hemingway’, The New Yorker. May 13, 1950.
Take the case of Arundhati Roy. Her first and only novel, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, which brought her instant international acclaim. She traded on this in the best of ways, donating time, money and attention on the issues at the heart of her novel: communism, the Indian caste system and the treatment of untouchables, and the far-reaching effects of colonialism on Indian life. A slew of other prizes followed: in 2002, she won the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize; and, in 2004, she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her advocacy of non-violence and social justice.
For Roy, the work of art is not only to bear witness but to get people thinking, talking and acting. In her case, before all the accolades and prizes, Roy was charged with obscenity in India, which made her aware of the real value of literature: the right to speak freely.
She first heard of the accusations when she was on a book tour. Obscenity is a criminal offense in India and, at the time, Roy risked imprisonment. She returned home immediately and began the fight to restore her name. Speaking of it later in an interview with Salon, Roy said, “One cannot hide from the glare of one’s own writing.”
Eventually, she was cleared of the charges, but for Roy the real fight had only begun. To have her novel associated with obscenity took attention away from the issues she was hoping to bring to light and, consequently, incited Roy to deeper, more meaningful activism.
To get people thinking: There is a unique relationship between art and engagement. According to Eva Sallis, “A writer is neither exactly private nor exactly expert.” What a writer brings to an issue, however, is an ability to represent, to communicate effectively and emotionally, to convince.
The academic Brigid Rooney looks at the intersection of writers and activism in her new book, Literary Activists: Writer Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. Despite the fact that the title sounds much like that of a PhD thesis, her book is highly readable, well-informed and full of fascinating anecdotes. It’s impossible to do the book justice in this space but worth mentioning, in terms of the discussion of Roy above, that Australia too has a long history of literary figures using their writing to bring attention to social causes. Rooney presents several Australian literary figures from Patrick White to Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Les Murray. Each of the cases are interesting and well worth a look; however, the two that most engaged me were the almost opposite stories of Helen Garner and Tim Winton.
To get people talking: Rooney focuses on Garner’s experience with her book The First Stone, which concerns the sexual harassment allegations made by two female students against Melbourne University’s Master of Ormond College and the ensuing court case. Garner is portrayed as a ‘public interventionist’ for having pre-empted public consensus by writing a letter of sympathy to the accused man, who lost his job and his good reputation. At the time, this event, according to Rooney, “ripened swirling debates about academic elites, ‘culture wars’ and ‘political correctness’”. Where one stood on the issue at the time largely depended on age, education, gender, and other factors.
Garner’s letter was seen as speaking for the public at large at a moment when the public was at odds. Its existence froze the debate, and it hasn’t unthawed in all these years. Even now, controversy rages around Garner, with many young women refusing to read her books because they consider her a traitor to feminism. Still, Garner regularly ranks in the Top Ten lists of Australian intellectuals. The fact that she riles and stirs debate is considered to be a good thing.
To get people acting: Tim Winton excites us differently. Rather than dividing public opinion and stirring controversy, he is extolled for engaging the masses en large. Being described as a ‘littoralist’, someone, in other words, “who picks over things at the edges” is a label that delights Winton. He is literary and popular at the same time.
In a speech delivered at the State Library of Queensland in 2007, Winton began:
I don’t know what other special right I have to be addressing you. Certainly not as a novelist. Who cares what a novelist thinks?
He asserts that it is his sense of social responsibility and his concern for the environment that give him the right to speak. What he’s missing, however, is that many of us possess the same concern and the sense of responsibility; and yet we are not asked to speak at the State Library on conservation issues. It is precisely Winton’s status as a writer, his command of language and his ability to communicate, in addition to his passion for protecting the environment, that qualify Winton to speak. Crowds turn up to hear Winton. Not because he has written books, but because his books have touched us. They’ve helped to solidify our own jumbled sense of nature and the wild and why we must protect it.
Because of his books, we have a clear sense where he stands. We can trust him to put into words something we feel and know but can’t necessarily articulate.
The spotlight of engagement: In very different ways, each of these writers looks unblinkingly at what their writing has illuminated; each stands in the spotlight of engagement, no matter how uncomfortable the glare. Action worthy of gratitude and emulation.