Adequacy / Inadequacy

Ray was not vain about his bookish phrases. He did not use them to show off, but because they seemed to him more adequate than colloquial speech. He felt strongly about these things, and groped for words, as he said, “to express himself.” He had the lamentable American belief that “expression” is obligatory. He still carried in his trunk, among the unrelated possessions of a railroad man, a notebook on the title-page of which was written “Impressions on First Viewing the Grand Canyon, Ray H. Kennedy.” The pages of that book were like a battlefield; the laboring author had fallen back from metaphor after metaphor, abandoned position after position. He would have admitted that the art of forging metals was nothing to this treacherous business of recording impressions, in which the material you were so full of vanished mysteriously under your striving hand.

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark . . . . . .

Cultural Cringe

Dear world: on behalf of the Australian people, I’d like to apologise for Christos Tsiolkas.

In my experience, one of the most irritating things about simply being Australian is that, whenever you make any initial attempt to participate in any sort of cultural enterprise alongside anyone from virtually anywhere in the Western world, you must first thwart and dismantle the preconceptions of parochialism attributed to Australians in general before you can expect others to take you seriously. The global assumption — reinforced by the “colourful” behaviour of so many Australians abroad — is that the nation itself lacks a sense of cultural sophistication and that, as a result, the people of Australia do not recognise cultural sophistication when they encounter it either within their own country or elsewhere. The assumption isn’t true, of course, or at least not on any essentialist basis; but it is widespread and resilient, and its persistence has long been a source of grief for those who champion Australian culture: “How can we best prove to the world that Australian culture is worthy of serious attention and respect?” Within Australia itself, the assumption is understood to have historically fuelled a phenomenon known as the cultural cringe: a reflexive “awareness” amongst Australian artists and their audiences that Australian art of any type is inherently inferior to the art of others — that, indeed, Australian artists “have something to prove” in the first place.

Since the 1980s, though, Australia has seen a concerted effort to shrug off the cultural cringe advanced by figures from across the political spectrum — right-wing nationalists and left-wing republicans sitting side-by-side — the result of which has been essentially an inversion of the inferiority complex that once held sway. Now, Australians in general are more likely to take such excessive pride in Australian culture as to proclaim it superior to alternative cultures the world over: “Australian culture isn’t just good on its own terms; it’s the greatest culture in the world and everything else is weak by comparison.” Unfortunately, as might be expected by anyone not so deeply invested in the perceived value of Australian culture but perhaps invested in its actual value, this attitude only reinforces the preconceptions of parochialism that persist abroad, which in turn add grist to the mill of the Australian cultural supremacists, and so we enter a vicious cycle of undue acclaim for even the most mediocre products of Australian culture and the equally undue denigration of even the best products of other, different cultures. And for those Australians who seek to engage and appreciate cultural enterprises of a global variety rather than simply dismissing them, the obnoxious actions of one’s own countrymen abroad are what kindle the parochialism globally attributed to Australians in general — and, as such, they are the root cause of the irritation that comes with simply being Australian.

Well, the beat goes on, as today one of Australia’s most juvenile novelists attracted a level of publicity that he does not deserve by making a series of characteristically sensationalist remarks with the self-satisfied ignorance typical of Antipodean triumphalism. Worse than that: there are any number of Australian novelists whose truly innovative work is inevitably the first casualty of outbursts like these which strip meaningful literary discourse of its nuances and taint it with half-baked reductive generalities, and worse still: two of Australia’s most prominent periodicals (one, two) have grunted their support for “our boy” as he takes a jab at those too-cerebral, out-of-touch, “shitey” Europeans — all this, of course, without explanation and without justification. To put it in the only sort of language that the author himself would be likely to understand, this is the literary equivalent of letting out a ten decibel fart in a crowded elevator with a dozen floors still to go before the doors rush open:

He said: “In the English-language novel there is a fear of writing about the real world. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction that’s true to the world. I read to have my assumptions challenged, to be scared, to cry. That novel isn’t being written at the moment.”

Clearly, though, the assumptions he wants to have challenged are his assumptions about the world at large rather than his assumptions about the capabilities of fiction itself — as if it was somehow the purpose of fiction to challenge one’s assumptions about the world at large! — and therein lies the problem. Will any of our literary periodicals attempt to point that out and to undertake the difficult intellectual labour of unravelling its implications? Don’t hold your breath. This isn’t about genuine cultural engagement; it’s about enlarging the profile of Australian culture the most expedient way possible: by unashamedly ripping into the culture of others. Do that, however, and you diminish the odds of the best contributors to your own culture receiving the recognition that is their due. That, more than anything else, is truly worth cringing at.

ADDENDUM: It’s true, of course, that there must be some greater context to Christos Tsiolkas’ remarks, and that they may have been sensationalised in much the same way that the comments of Gabriel Josipovici were sensationalised only last week. But among the many differences between Tsiolkas and Josipovici is that Josipovici holds and articulates genuinely provocative positions whereas Tsiolkas is himself simply — and personally — a professional provocateur. In other words, for Josipovici, it’s all about the integrity of the argument, whereas for Tsiolkas it’s about little more than the enjoyment of arguing. If there is some contextual material that throws fresh light on his comments — if there is some contextual material that makes them sound any less infantile and dismissive — I’d be interested to see it, but I’m familiar enough with his work to know better than to expect it.

A Tale of Two Cities

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas in central Melbourne. In 2008, Melbourne become the second UNESCO City of Literature following the initial granting of that title to Edinburgh in 2004. As part of the city’s bid for the title, the Victorian state government agreed to build and fund in perpetuity a dedicated space for regular literary events in an atrium attached to the State Library. When additional funding was offered by Tony and Maureen Wheeler — they of the Lonely Planet phenomenon — the proposed space was named in their honour. The Wheeler Centre opened earlier this year and now holds daily literary events, all of them accessible to the public at no cost, as well as providing a home for six resident literary organisations: festival organisers, independent publishers, small-press journals, and so on. Yesterday the Wheeler Centre threw open its doors and gave the public unprecedented access to the entire site, including those areas that are off-limits throughout the week. I thought it seemed like a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the Centre, and, more importantly, to take a fresh look at Melbourne’s City of Literature status in general.

First, to the Wheeler Centre itself. I appreciate the sentiment behind it. The construction of such a dedicated literary space and the hosting of free daily literary events can only be a good thing. Still, I have some reservations about the way those events are run. Since the Wheeler Centre is self-professedly “the centrepiece of the Victorian Government’s City of Literature initiative,” one would hope that the events held at the Centre are essentially and recognisably literary in nature. The fact is, they’re not. The Wheeler Centre’s full title is the giveaway: it is, as above, the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas, and, with the inclusion of the word “ideas,” the Centre gives itself a free pass to downgrade the literariness of its events. The “ideas” on view at the Centre are the sorts of ideas that attract immediate public interest insofar as they are “ripped from the headlines.” Domestic politics, environmental initiatives, international affairs, and so on: these “ideas” dominate the program at the Centre and thus sideline the discussion of literature that is, by nature, of less immediate interest because it makes a bid for long-term value. Not only that, but even when such literature does receive attention at the Centre, it is largely approached as little more than a vehicle for “ideas” and evaluated according to its ability to offer a distinctly human response to various social and political dilemmas. In short, the Wheeler Centre tends to look upon literature as either explicitly polemical non-fiction or as a polemic with the aesthetic veil of fiction cast over it, rather than as a product of laborious and sophisticated artistry. So the value of literature is found in its ability to “say something” about the world we inhabit and about “what it means to be human.” I would sacrifice my firstborn to be able to go there and hear someone discuss literature as literature.

This wouldn’t be such a disappointment, of course, if the Wheeler Centre did not so completely dominate the City of Literature initiative. Although it is referred to as the “centrepiece” of the initiative, it is in effect the totality of that initiative and, as a result, there is a dearth of literariness to be found elsewhere in this City of Literature. And this, in turn, wouldn’t be so disappointing if Edinburgh did not already provide such a stunning example of how to both invest the quality of literariness in a City of Literature and bring out the literariness already extant. On this point, I confess to a bias: I spent about four years living in Edinburgh before I moved to Melbourne in early 2009; I relocated from the inaugural City of Literature to its immediate successor. And I confess to a second bias: I have little love for the city of Melbourne because my heart remains very firmly in Edinburgh. Of course, Melbourne simply cannot compete with Edinburgh in the literary stakes. Edinburgh has hundreds of years of literary history behind it, whereas Melbourne wasn’t even founded until 1835 and didn’t become a city until more than a decade after that. Nevertheless, Melbourne has put little effort into making itself a City of Literature by bringing literature into public spaces so that the very streets are suffused with it. It could learn a lot from Edinburgh’s efforts to locate its literary history at street level so that literature appears before your very eyes no matter where you look.

Holyrood Park, at the base of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is home to Arthur’s Seat, a great volcanic peak surrounded by acres of heath, knolls, lochs, and crags. It gave Arthur Conan Doyle the inspiration for the setting of The Lost World, and was used by James Hogg as the setting for his hero’s eerie encounter with his doppelganger in Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Edinburgh and set large parts of Kidnapped in and around the city as well as obviously drawing on many of the city’s characteristics to give his London a gothic twist in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. John Buchan immortalised the city in The Thirty-Nine Steps. Ian Fleming found a home for the young James Bond at Edinburgh’s Fettes College. Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman have each co-opted parts of the city in their work — and, of course, in doing so they place themselves in a tradition that dates back two centuries to the pinnacle of Scottish romanticism under Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, both of whom made the city distinctly their own in the literature they wrote in it and about it.

Shall I go on? J.M. Barrie lived in Edinburgh and wrote the early drafts of Peter Pan there. Charles Darwin was a student at Edinburgh University; I used to pass his old lodgings on my way to work each day. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited the city a number of times, with Boswell writing of their adventures around Edinburgh in his work on the life of Johnson. The poet Robert Fergusson lived and worked in Edinburgh. Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows whilst living and working in Edinburgh. The two great poets of World War I, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, met in the Military Hospital at Craiglockhart in the suburbs of Edinburgh. It was on a visit to Edinburgh that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein. Three of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known — David Hume, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill — all lived and wrote their masterpieces in Edinburgh and its surrounds, and Hume and Smith are both buried in Edinburgh and honoured with commemorative statues on the Royal Mile. Thomas Carlyle was right there in Edinburgh alongside those philosophers. Lewis Crassic Gibbon followed. Hell, Chris Claremont even set a couple of issues of The Uncanny X-Men at the top of the Holyrood Crags. More recently, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro both lived as students in Edinburgh and continue to return there almost every year, even taking the city as the subject of their fictions. Almost all of the locales and authors I have named so far are mentioned on a plaque or a monument somewhere in Edinburgh to give them due credit for their place in world literature. Additionally, the Royal Mile is dotted with literary institutions: the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Scottish Poetry Centre, the Scottish Book Trust, and the Writers’ Museum. The National Library of Scotland is just around the corner on George IV Bridge. Step off the Royal Mile into Lady Stair’s Close and you’ll find Makars’ Court, where poetry is etched into the stone slabs on the ground. Even when buildings around the city are due to undergo renovations or reconstruction, the giant tarpaulins that shroud the buildings to keep the construction site out of public view are covered from top to bottom in poetry. The last one I saw was just off the intersection of South St. David Street and Princes Street — a stone’s throw from the foreboding Sir Walter Scott Monument at the edge of the Princes Street Gardens, just opposite Waverley Station: a central train station named after a work of literature. The city is positively ablaze with traces of the written word.

And that’s just off the top of my head. The city council’s own promotional material lays out an even more distinguished literary history. Blackwood’s Magazine, the first publication ever to print the work of George Eliot, was established and published in Edinburgh. John Murray Publishers brought Lord Byron and Jane Austen into print with offices based in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Review, which featured Thomas Carlyle and Sir Walter Scott as contributors, was one of the most widely-circulated periodicals in the British Empire: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both among its longstanding admirers. Even Edinburgh’s social and political history obtains a literary quality within the space of the city itself as an overabundance of historical sites are accompanied by narrative explanations of their significance that dominate the city’s public spaces. Tales of plague and war and witch-burnings are told and re-told on the walls of the buildings near which such events occurred, even though those buildings that are today nothing more illustrious than pubs, cafes, shops, or other small businesses. Every site of significance is given its due in the form of a story made visible in the public arena, from the arrival place of Oliver Cromwell to the city lodgements of John Knox — to say nothing of the locales associated with Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Bonny Prince Charlie, and on and on and on. Beyond the broad strokes of its literary history, Edinburgh is alive with small-scale literature as story after story after story adorns every possible surface of the city. And that is to say nothing of the contemporary authors whose work makes Edinburgh a renowned city today: Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, Irvine Welsh, and J.K. Rowling. All of them have at some stage lived and worked in Edinburgh, most of them continue to do so, and collectively they have written about the city at such extraordinary length that the city as it exists in reality and the city as it exists on the page have long since become inextricably bound up with one another. As well as being unable to walk the streets of Edinburgh without spotting here and there some artefact of literary history, history itself is transformed into literature on the city streets while the city continues to inspire fresh literature today.

As I said above, I know that Melbourne is simply unable to compete with Edinburgh. To be sure, it has seen its share of literary luminaries in the past. Henry Handel Richardson, Marcus Clarke, Barbara Baynton, Neville Shute, Joseph Furphy, and Joan Lindsay all lived and wrote in or around Melbourne, and all of them produced work that has since either obtained classic status or is on its way to doing so. Someday, the work of Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Carey, and Helen Garner will probably also do the same. Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane are two of only three world-class novelists currently at work in Australia and both have written some of their work in and about Melbourne — although Castro has recently relocated to Adelaide where he now works alongside J.M. Coetzee, the third of those three world-class novelists. But beyond those authors, the leading lights of Australian literature are more evenly distributed throughout the country. Tasmania claims Christopher Koch and Richard Flanagan; the Northern Territory claims Xavier Herbert; Western Australia claims Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley, Randolph Stowe, and Katharine Susannah Prichard; Queensland claims David Malouf; and New South Wales claims, impressively, Patrick White, Thea Astley, Kate Grenville, Henry Lawson, Christina Stead, Thomas Keneally, and Delia Falconer. That’s about it — but, at the same time, it’s enough to work with. How about some way of identifying landmarks and locations around the city that have been incorporated into the literature of some of these writers? How about some way of identifying locations that have been marked by the personal presence of these writers? And if that’s not enough, why not turn to those writers who at some stage visited Melbourne and remarked upon it? Mark Twain lectured in this city. So did Anthony Trollope. So did Rudyard Kipling. So did Joseph Conrad. So did Arthur Conan Doyle, an Edinburgh native. Robert Louis Stevenson never visited but certainly expressed some strong opinions on Melbourne. How about a commemorative statue or two? At the moment, Melbourne features only three statues of a literary nature: an Australianised Peter Pan at Melbourne Zoo, a statue of Adam Lindsay Gordon outside the State Parliament, and — irony of ironies — a statue of Robert Burns in the Treasury Gardens. It also features a single, solitary brick taken from the boyhood home of James Joyce and placed on the periphery of the State Library, but let’s be honest here: the elevation of a brick to the status of a literary landmark couldn’t even be described as a mediocre effort without giving it undue credit. And even if we set aside these sorts of literary landmarks, why can Melbourne not follow Edinburgh’s lead in developing programs that define the reading of literature as a social act and encourage reading in the public arena? Each year, Edinburgh runs the “One Book — One Edinburgh” program, an enormous citywide initiative which aims to have everyone in the city reading the same book at the same time after having picked it up for free in any one of a number public spaces that serve as impromptu distributors. Is Melbourne unable to follow suit or is it simply unwilling? Either way, something more is needed to make this UNESCO City of Literature an essentially and identifiably literary city. The fancy title and the Wheeler Centre alone just do not suffice.

This is, of course, a futile plea. The Wheeler Centre’s promotional material states the matter very bluntly: “Our City of Literature status is not about Dickens on the tram, Nabokov in the Great Southern Strand or a Bronte or two over breakfast. It’s a recognition and celebration of Melbourne’s passionate readers.” But the act of reading involves opening oneself to the reading experience even when one is not staring at the words on the page, when one is going about one’s daily affairs. To take reading seriously involves thinking throughout the day about the books that one has previously read, as well as entertaining a curiosity about the books that one has not yet been enticed to read. More recognition of Melbourne’s literary history in the city’s public places would not only call to mind the various reading experiences of those who recognise city landmarks from where they have encountered them in literature, but would also stimulate the curiosity of those who have not read such literature and would increase the likelihood of their reading it. A citywide reading initiative would do likewise. This is the Edinburgh strategy: saturate the city with an overabundance of literary aides-mémoire in a way that makes literature an absolutely integral part of everyday life. The Melbourne strategy, at present, involves confining literary events to a fixed and dedicated space and refusing to let literature itself penetrate those four walls. Within a certain set of parameters, I admit: the intellectual life of Melbourne is surely more vigorous for the establishment of the Wheeler Centre. But insofar as the Centre has dominated of the City of Literature initiative, it has also to some extent kept the facilitation of literary discussion cordoned-off from the outside world. In Edinburgh, literature has air of vitality about it because you find it everywhere you go, in everything you encounter. In Melbourne, it feels much less vital and therefore like a mere indulgence because you have to go to a very specific location, at a very specific time, in order to encounter it — and even then, of course, you’re more likely to encounter “ideas” instead.

A Marked Man

I once knew a man who went into the hospital to have a little lump cut out of his neck. He put my hand on it, on that silly little lump, and we laughed about how we could exaggerate its seriousness and get him a couple of weeks off work, to go on a holiday together. The lump was examined, but further surgery was cancelled because there were so many, many other lumps that were discovered. The verdict was that any operation would be useless. All of a sudden, he was a marked man. … When I went to see him he stared at me in nearly witless anger, he could not hide it. It was all through him, they said.

Alice Munro, ‘What Do You Want to Know For?’ .

In Favour of “Compelling”

Earlier this year, Michelle Kerns’ “Book Review Bingo” went viral on the Internet. Having first assembled a list of the top twenty most annoying book reviewer clichés, Kerns added a few more to the list and then inserted them all into a series of Bingo cards. “Print them out,” she wrote. “Distribute them among your reading fellows. See who can get to Bingo first. … Wallow in the joy of artificially inflated, knee-jerk, ultimately meaningless book reviews.” Soon enough, The Guardian picked up on the story, and a couple of months thereafter Kerns was interviewed here in Australia on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show alongside Laura Miller, the book critic for Salon. Kerns and Miller were both asked to open the interview by naming their “favourite” (ie. least favourite) book review cliché. Kerns opted for “unputdownable.” I cannot take issue with that choice. Miller, however, opted for “compelling,” and that seems to me misguided.

I understand the logic behind Miller’s choice. “Compelling” is vastly overused in book reviews, and, worse, it is used almost exclusively as a synonym for “unputdownable,” “captivating,” or simply “interesting.” In the more literal sense of the word, though, “compelling” denotes some overpowering force that drives those who feel it exerted upon them to follow a course of action that they would otherwise be inclined to resist. For a reviewer to declare a book “compelling,” then, is for the reviewer to implicitly acknowledge that he or she initially resisted entering the book and perhaps resisted the early stages of reading it, only to discover something within the reading experience that forced the reviewer to acquiesce to the book itself and to read through to the end. In my personal reading practices, I find myself resistant to a book whenever I pick one up — there are a thousand other things to which I could devote my time, and, of course, countless thousands of other books to read — so that, if I were to know which books a reviewer very literally found “compelling,” I would know which books are most likely to induce me to relax my resistance and thus which ones are most worth my attention and concentration.

When I say, however, that a compelling book is one that forces its readers to acquiesce to it, I do not mean to suggest that it is in any way necessarily a “page-turner,” a book in which readers gradually “lose themselves.” It may well be such a book, of course, but the books that I find most compelling are the very opposite of “page-turners.” Rather than breaking through my resistance and allowing me to lose myself in them, they acknowledge my resistance and manipulate it and toy with it in various ways; and, as a result, I find myself so deeply engaged in the back-and-forth of what the book is doing to me that I am more content to linger over the pages, to luxuriate in them, to prolong the engagement in the back-and-forth, than to turn them and turn them until they have been exhausted.