Genius?

What counts as genius? Sometimes it’s clear-cut: in 1981, with four sophisticated but commercially lacklustre novels to his credit, Cormac McCarthy used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Blood Meridian, arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Other times, it’s more counterintuitive: in 1988, with Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and V already under his belt, Thomas Pynchon used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Vineland, a work more experimentally adventurous (for him) if ultimately less successful than the earlier three novels. Mostly, though, what counts as genius is a major achievement that contains a hint of truly outstanding things to come. David Foster Wallace won his Fellowship on the back of Infinite Jest, Aleksandar Hemon won his on the back of Nowhere Man, and Edward P. Jones won his the same year he picked up the Pulitzer for The Known World – without doubt the best American novel of the last ten years. That decade also saw Fellowships awarded to Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Stuart Dybeck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Deborah Eisenberg, as well as Colson Whitehead, who used his Fellowship to write the criminally underappreciated Colossus of New York, and Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is one of this year’s best books for all the reasons Dan Chiasson has [recently] raved about.

I have a few quick thoughts on this year’s MacArthur Fellowships over at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Putting a Finger on the Problem

At Spike: The Meanjin Blog, Jessica Au has some harsh words for the recent film adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began. Nostalgia for Marsden’s original series of books was what prompted her to see the film, she says, “despite my qualms about the trailer, which seemed stuck somewhere between Summer Bay and a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza.” After noting some of the key differences between the books and the film, she goes on to take issue with the differing degrees of violence displayed by the obscure forces that invade Australia on the page and the pan-Asian army that invades Australia on the screen:

In the books, Ellie and her friends discover that the invading forces are trying to treat people relatively well as part of their ‘clean war’ strategy. Their reasons may be dubious, but still it’s a vital point. In contrast, the movie posits a greater degree of cruelty from the invading Other — early on, Ellie witnesses the townspeople being kept in caged fences at the Showgrounds, where a man is shot in cold blood for protesting. The lines of good and evil are drawn with a slightly more definite hand.

For Au, then, the problem that weakens the film is primarily moral in nature: it’s wrong for the film to suggest that complex issues of right and wrong and “good” and “evil” are as simplistic as it makes them appear. Maybe so. But while I would locate the problem with the film in exactly the same spot that Au locates it, I think it is aesthetic rather than moral in nature. In the books, as Au notes, Australia was invaded by forces that tried to take over the country in a “clean war.” In other words, the actions of the villains in the books were governed by a delicate internal tension: the villains had no way to achieve their objectives without resorting to violence and yet they had vested interests in keeping violence to an absolute minimum. This tension in turn invested great importance in the actions of the heroes: when they destroy the bridge at the end of the story, they aren’t just disrupting the ability of their enemy to transport supplies from the ports to the mainland; they are also taking advantage of their enemy’s self-imposed Achilles heel in a way that baits that enemy into doing exactly what it did not want to do. The enemy’s desire to run a “clean war,” which runs like an undercurrent through the entire novel, transforms the destruction of the bridge — on the surface of it, a purely tactical course of action — into the heroes’ way of assuming and expressing a political position, a re-envisioned distribution of power under occupation. So, by denying the enemy that desire, the filmmakers undercut the dramatic importance and thus the impact of the narrative climax. The heroes destroy the bridge, and that’s it: bridge goes boom. The enemy will hunt them down, but hunt can really only obtain dramatic vitality if the enemy has an interest in avoiding it.

Critical Failure, Redux

My post from a couple of weeks ago left a few threads dangling which I hope now to tie up. Last weekend, that post also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me which I’ll explain in a moment. First, though, for those who wish to see for themselves the event I discussed in that post — the ‘Critical Failure’ debate on the current state of Australian literary criticism at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — a lightly edited video is now online at the Centre’s website. Witness the great Peter Craven in all his grotesque glory.

A couple of other posts discussing the same event have since sprung up online. Here, for example, is Rebecca Starford, one of the four panellists at the event:

I had been looking forward to a nuanced conversation with Peter Craven, Hilary McPhee and Gideon Haigh about the traditional modes of Australian literary criticism, the problems they encounter (shrinking editorial space, dwindling readerships, erosion of critical authorities, among others), how the digital world destabilises/complements this forum, and where Australian literary criticism is — if indeed it is — moving forward.

Unfortunately, I (and I suspect many of the audience) came away from ‘Critical Failure: Books’ frustrated and disappointed (in myself, it must be said). The panel had failed in its intentions: to generate a rigorous, considerate, balanced discussion about Australian book criticism in all its forms and the changing shape of critical thinking.

Meanwhile, Emmett Stinson offers a provocative take on the nature of book reviews in general:

There is a weirdness… in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation. Of course, reviews may contain incisive analysis as well (indeed, it may appear as if they only contain such analysis), but reviews are absolutely tied to the notion of the book as commodity, and it is for this reason that virtually all book reviews cover new releases. In this sense, the book review is a deeply strange hybrid genre, which combines literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy ‘event’).

He also makes a proposal that has long been a favourite of mine:

[Y]ou will rarely see negative reviews on this site (or hear me give negative reviews on Triple R). It’s not that I like everything I read (indeed, the amount of fiction I like would comprise a tiny fraction of what’s published–certainly less than 5%), but rather that I only try to review books that I actually like. Doing this requires selecting carefully and reading a bit of a book before I decide to review it, but I see this as one excellent possible mode for book reviewing: review only the books that you enjoy reading. … [R]ather than spend my time readings books I don’t like, why not discuss only the books that I actually think merit discussion? In this sense, I critique by omission, and praise by inclusion.

I like that approach. After all, any attempt to discuss a book carries within it the implicit judgement that the book in question is worth discussing, which in turn carries the implicit suggestion that if it is worth discussing then it must be worth reading. The substance of a positive book review would therefore make explicit what is implicit in the book review as a form.

Anyway: both of those responses went online in the middle of last week, about a week after the event at the Wheeler Centre. Then, at the end of last week, I and a handful of other local bloggers were invited to participate in a second event at the Centre which was, in a sense, organised as a means of redressing the imbalance caused by the original ‘Critical Failure’ events. Which is a diplomatic way of saying that the original events — lacklustre when they weren’t outright infuriating — kicked up such a shitstorm online that someone thought it would be a good idea to bring together some of those who raised complaints and to also solicit their thoughts on the state of contemporary criticism. So I spent the lion’s share of Sunday at the Wheeler Centre discussing the ins and outs of online criticism in the company of bloggers and online journalists with interests in critical approaches to literature, film, theatre, the visual arts, and video games, as well as a concern for the state of cultural policy in Australia. Here’s the full line-up, running clockwise around the table as I saw it from where I sat: Estelle Tang, Pat Allan, Mel CampbellBen Eltham, Richard Watts, Mark HolsworthAlison Croggon, Angela Meyer, . Lisa Dempster, Paul CallaghanNikita VanderbylW.H. Chong, and George Dunford.

Not too long ago, sometime in early August, I had some harsh words for the Wheeler Centre. My gripe was twofold. First, as compared with the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature initiative, I didn’t like the extent to which the establishment of the Wheeler Centre had come to dominate Melbourne’s City of Literature initiative to the exclusion of almost all other literary endeavours. Second, I didn’t like the way in which the Centre, as a venue for literary events, had become a sort of enclosure — rather than a platform — for literary discussion in Melbourne. “Within a certain set of parameters,” I wrote, “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.” After Sunday’s discussion, I still haven’t seen anything that would lead me to reconsider my first problem with the Centre, but I’m happy to say that the Centre seems to have heard the second problem and taken steps to address it.

On one level, what I saw on Sunday was a group of people drawn together to discuss the shortcomings of the ‘Critical Failure’ events and to thresh out some possible strategies for avoiding those shortcomings in future publications and at future festivals and so on. On a deeper level, though, what I saw was an organisation first hosting a series of public events and gauging the public response to them, and then turning its attention to those voices that were largely excluded from the original events, listening to what they had to say, and sending them back out into public to share what they had said and heard. In other words, the Centre has finally found a way of not only fostering a discourse within its four walls but also encouraging that discourse to break out of those confines and enter the broader public arena. It’s a great thing to see. In the words of one of Australia’s greatest public intellectuals: “Ten out of ten and a koala stamp.” And, of course, I’d say exactly the same thing even if I hadn’t been there. I hope it represents the beginning of a pattern of behaviour for the Wheeler Centre.

I won’t recount the discussion point for point. At present, Mel and Lisa both have brief summaries up on their respective blogs, while Paul has written a more in-depth response to some of the points raised by the group and Nikita has published the first of two posts outlining the course of the conversation. I will say that both Paul and Nikita have a few notes on my favourite part of the discussion: “the art of criticism.” Before heading to the Centre, I was a little worried that the discussion might too easily become a conversation about the technical side of blogging or perhaps even a self-congratulatory celebration of the imminent death of print criticism — I was worried, in short, that the discussion would take the activity of criticism for granted rather than making an issue of it and questioning its associated motives, purposes, and aesthetics. I needn’t have worried at all. The group covered these topics thoroughly.

Here, though, I do want to elaborate on some remarks I made during the discussion which have since popped up, paraphrased, on Nikita’s blog:

Daniel Wood from Infinite Patience pointed out that a blogger’s archives are another feather in their cap. They are in effect far more permanent than the print critic’s weekly column on paper, or the newspaper’s online archive (which, I don’t know if you’ve tried, are impossible to navigate). If ease of access is valuable to readers then blogs have long fulfilled this niche.

I think that’s obviously true, but there’s a bit more to it than that. At the heart of the point I sought to make was not the issue of the accessibility of blog archives versus the accessibility of newspaper archives per se, but the much more slippery issue of the critical legitimacy of a book reviewer and the extent to which that legitimacy is inextricably bound up with the accessibility of the reviewer’s archives. In effect, a book reviewer writing for a newspaper obtains an aura of critical legitimacy because the newspaper’s financiers have agreed to pay the reviewer for his or her judgements. In making that payment, the newspaper effectively announces to its readers that it is familiar with the reviewer’s previous writings and it expresses confidence in the reviewer’s critical judgements on the basis of those previous writings. The reader of the newspaper, however, can only take the newspaper’s expression of confidence in good faith, since he or she does not enjoy access to the reviewer’s previous writings which, after all, simply can’t fit on the newspaper’s pages.

In this institutional context, then, a book reviewer obtains two different sorts of critical legitimacy from two different sources: the institution — that is, the newspaper — acknowledges the critical legitimacy of the reviewer on the basis of his or her previous writings, whereas the reader of the newspaper acknowledges such legitimacy on the basis of the pay cheque that the reviewer receives from the institution that maintains exclusive access to those writings. In the individual context, however, wherein a book reviewer runs an independent blog, he or she obtains critical legitimacy directly from the aggregate of the posts in his or her archives. Without the newspaper as middle-man — without the media as mediator — the reader has a direct connection to the reviewer’s previous writings and thus a direct means of discerning the reviewer’s critical legitimacy. On the one hand, this makes the online reviewer more familiar to the reader, allowing the reader to better gauge the reviewer’s tastes, inclinations, and standards of judgement. On the other hand, it makes the reviewer more accountable for his or her past judgements as well as future judgements make on the basis of past criteria. In the long run, whatever these developments may mean for particular critics, I can’t see how they could possibly do anything other than advance the quality of literary criticism overall.

ADDENDUM: A few more reports from those who attended Sunday’s event have appeared in the two days since I published this post: Ben Eltham and Mark Holsworth have both chimed in, W.H. Chong has uploaded his sketchbook featuring drawings of most of the participants including myself, and Estelle Tang offers a brief round-up that concludes with a nice reflection on the more down-to-earth aspects of blog-based literary criticism:

What impressed me was how mindful many of the attendees were of their writing practice, their aims, their ethics and the new terrain they were writing in and forging, whether in their blogging or print work. I have to admit I’ve never given my blog much thought. … But the one very constant and pressing thought I’ve had since the Critical Failure panel series is that, despite the throwaway nature of this blog’s genesis (Golly! Let’s start a blog!) and despite the fact that sometimes all I do is talk about foodstuffs, what this blog enables me to do is write regularly. There you have it: modest, yes, prosaic … but true. And that weekly process of attempting to honour a reading experience by fixing it in my own words has been valuable. You only need to go back and read my first few posts to see that. Not just because what I write these days is more coherent or readable, but because I feel more steady-footed when approaching a book; I feel like reading is much more reciprocal now.

Critical Failure, Indeed

Last night, I spent some time at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas to listen to a panel discussion about the current state of literary criticism in Australia. The discussion was part of the Centre’s ‘Critical Failure’ series of events, and, of course, the series name clearly gives away the drift of the conversation: the panellists unanimously concluded that the state of literary criticism in Australia is currently pretty dire. On the panel were the publishers Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford as well as the critics Peter Craven and Gideon Haigh. To some extent, the need for such a discussion was identified by Haigh earlier this year, when he published a brief but powerful opinion piece on the failure of Australian literary criticism in the upstart journal Kill Your Darlings. After briefly outlining the abysmal pay and conditions that literary critics can expect to receive from editors around the country, Haigh concluded:

[T]here’s little incentive for sticking one’s neck out, for actually taking a position, for arguing that a book is bad, or sloppy, or stupid, or two or three iterations short of finished — an affliction staggeringly common among Australian books. Who needs the aggravation? [It is] far easier to summarise the contents, recapitulate the blurb, describe the author’s reputation, or examine the author’s politics in a thinly veiled op-ed — is he or she ‘one of us’?

For Haigh, then, responsibility for the parlous state of Australian literary criticism lies partly with critics too risk-averse to actually make a judgement of a book and partly with editors who decline to adequately remunerate both the formulation and the painstaking articulation of such judgements. The result of this situation that most infuriates Haigh is the rise and rise of the capsule review, “one hundred words or less, executed for beer money, and [published only] to convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page, one superficial but reverberating assertion at a time.” To my mind, though, the worse result of this situation is the current predominance of criticism in which the critic does not articulate his or her standards of judgement — either because the critic simply fails to articulate his or her assumptions or because his or her editor has not allowed the critic the space for any such articulation — which, in any event, operates on and thus perpetuates the simplistic assumption that all readers share the very same standards of judgement. Still, what irritates Haigh the most about the capsule review could just as easily apply to what irritates me about criticism without clear standards:

[A] competent book review should be a form of inquiry into what makes good books good — an inquiry with, as unfashionable as it sounds, the courage of its elitism. Without a benchmark of what constitutes excellent writing, scrupulous research and intelligent discussion, a reviewer is locked into a world in which ‘liking’ and ‘not liking’ are the only options — the Beavis and Butthead world, as the American literary critic Curtis White has put it, in which ‘this sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is just finally a lot stupid.’

Then, in advance and perhaps in anticipation of last night’s discussion, Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic for The Australian, published a critic’s “manifesto” as the cover story in this month’s Australian Literary Review and used Haigh’s screed as his starting point:

Journalist, author and critic Gideon Haigh has recently written and spoken of book reviewing in Australia as a discipline in decline, whose “besetting sin is its sheer dullness and inexpertise.”

Author and academic John Dale, writing on Page 14 of this issue [of the Australian Literary Review], doubts there ever was a golden age of literary criticism in Australia for us to decline from.

Unfortunately for everyone, despite Williamson’s efforts to establish a sense of antagonism between the two men, Haigh and Dale are both right. As Dale suggests, Australian literary criticism has not declined from some golden age because there never was a golden age from which it could decline — but that doesn’t mean that Australian literary criticism has always been consistently mediocre and remains so today. And, as Haigh contends, Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness. Worse than falling from grace, it has fallen from blandness.

Can it possibly be rescued and reinvigorated? With Haigh having issued his plea for its reinvigoration, Williamson has now taken a stab at thinking through the logistics of how best to go about the task. As he sees it, the most adept literary critics are those who have spent their lives training themselves to become literary critics, which is to say those involved in academic literary studies. Williamson is quick to add, however, that the very nature of the academy too often corrupts the ability of such critics to successfully communicate with a general audience:

Many of the best readers of my generation ended up teaching in universities. There, as a result of the zealously quantitative approach demanded of academic career building, they are obliged to produce mountains of words for peer-reviewed journals which few people read. Until recently, writing criticism for newspapers or magazines was not given any weight at all in hierarchies of valued publications. Imagine the insights and enthusiasms that have been lost to the general public as a result.

For Williamson, academic literary critics are shackled by both the bureaucracy of the academy and a blind fidelity to critical theory. He suggests that the first set of shackles are currently, if slowly, being cast off — the academy, as he says, undervalued criticism for the general public “until recently” — and so he has taken it upon himself to attempt to cast off the second set of shackles by producing this list of what to keep and what to discard from critical theory:

What to keep:

  • A healthy suspicion of fixed literary canons.
  • An appreciation of the socially mediated nature of literature.
  • The quasi-scientific rigour of theory’s approach to textual analysis.
  • Greater circumspection in making broad or universalist claims.
  • An awareness of and respect for marginal, repressed, underground and countercultural traditions and communities, and the texts and voices that emerge from them.
  • A taste for the positive, spark-striking aspects of interdisciplinary research.

What to discard:

  • A lack of interest in the substance and real-world content of texts under discussion, unless it is to critique their ideological biases.
  • A disregard for literature’s special status, lumping it with every other form of writing, from bus tickets to bumper stickers.
  • A refusal to permit communication of enthusiasm or value judgments about a text.
  • The outlawing of literary canons and historical traditions as a guide to merit.
  • Displacement of the author from a position of authority over the texts they create.
  • Extreme scepticism and relativism with regard to Western concepts, categories and metaphysics.

I agree with most of that, and what I disagree with does not aggravate me enough to challenge it at any length. What does aggravate me, however, is what Williamson writes next:

Much has been written about the revolutionary potential of the internet for criticism. It is ridiculously cheap, blisteringly fast and the online community it engenders is one that thrives on argument and constant to-and-fro. Most significantly, the web breaks the monopoly on criticism once held by analog-era organs and allows everyone to have their say.

Just because the medium allows argument to thrive, however, does not mean that it is ideal for criticism.

For every brilliant new blogger that has emerged, 100 pallid yes-men (and women) have sprung up. And while these bloggers often define themselves against in-house elitists who impose their tastes from above, they have a tendency to move in digital packs, to think as hive minds.

But there is nothing lonelier than a true critical response. Whether calling out a dud novel by a writer of reputation or trying to drag an overlooked work of merit from the swamp of mediocrity, the critic is doing their job to the degree that they achieve separation from massed opinion.

However marvellous it may be, the web is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a novel space.

How completely and disastrously wrong. That last sentence, in particular, is shockingly obtuse, from the capital ‘H’ in ‘However’ and onward through to the full stop at the end of the paragraph — not so much in view of what it says as in view of what it misses in so saying.

We want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘yes-men’ in literary criticism, the sort of ‘yes-men’ who write the capsule reviews that irritate Gideon Haigh. We also presumably want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘hive mind’ aspect of literary criticism, the sort of ‘hive mind’ that is perpetuated when literary critics fail to articulate their individual standards of judgement or are otherwise prohibited from doing so by their editors. In other words, those aspects of literary criticism in blog format that Geordie Williamson finds most objectionable — the supposedly disproportionate number of facile readers and the supposed tendency to not allow group assumptions to be challenged — are precisely those aspects of print criticism that have brought it to the very parlous state in which we now find it. Pot, kettle, black.

More importantly, though, these shortcomings of print criticism are direct consequences of the publication of literary criticism in a print format. They are the result of the physical constraints and demands of the printed page: the need, as Gideon Haigh writes, to “convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page,” as well as the reticence and perhaps even the inability of literary editors to provide book reviewers with adequate space in which to articulate their standards of judgement. Does it not then follow that a medium free of those physical constraints and demands is better suited than the printed page to avoid those shortcomings?

Unfortunately, not one of the four panellists at last night’s discussion seemed to think so, or even to have considered the question. Gideon Haigh and Hilary McPhee paid lip service to just one local litblog, Angela Meyer’s LiteraryMinded, while Rebecca Starford spruiked Killings — the blog associated with Kill Your Darlings, of which she is a founding editor — and the pompous and frequently condescending Peter Craven altogether dismissed the suggestion that a blog could provide a suitable venue for sophisticated but non-academic literary criticism. Worse, when a questioner in the audience asked the four panellists what they believed constituted a successful work of literary criticism, not one of them gave a direct answer. Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford didn’t answer the question at all, while Peter Craven laughed it off. Only Gideon Haigh offered a response to it, but he didn’t go any further than to reissue one of the less intelligent claims in his essay: that a successful work of literary criticism is “a lively and engaging piece of writing [that] informs and invigorates” and “a sparky, spunky, memorable bit of prose” — a definition of successful literary criticism that doesn’t exactly suggest an understanding of the specific aims and qualities of literary criticism that would differentiate a successful work in that genre from any other successful piece of writing. Across the board, the panellists — whose task was ostensibly to examine what has gone wrong with Australian literary criticism and to consider the ways in which we might set it right again — not only could not specify exactly what makes a work of literary criticism successful, but also would not take seriously a medium for literary criticism that is physically better suited to the production of successful criticism than is the medium that has brought it to its knees. Critical failure, indeed.

I don’t mean to suggest that the blog format will necessarily produce more sophisticated literary criticism than the print format; I mean only that it is more conducive to producing such criticism than is the print format because it allows critics to do what print does not. There are three key elements to a successful work of literary criticism. First, it must articulate a vision of what literature is and what it is for, based on the critic’s understanding of the particularities of the literary artform as distinct from alternative artforms. Second, it must show some understanding of the particular ways in which different works of literature can possibly, and have previously, made themselves “literature” in the sense just articulated. Finally, it must assess the ways in which, and the extent to which, a given work of literature either successfully or unsuccessfully makes itself “literature” in the same sense. In other words, a successful work of literary criticism must answer three questions: what is literature supposed to do, how has that best been done in the past, and how well or how poorly does the work under consideration do it?

The print format simply does not have the luxury of allowing literary critics enough space to include the first two of these three elements of a successful work of criticism. That is why, rather than articulating their own individual understandings of what literature is supposed to do, we find print critics almost unanimously assessing and pronouncing judgement on a work of literature by drawing on an assumption of a shared belief that the purpose of literature is to “move the reader” by placing “fully rounded characters” in a “carefully drawn narrative” and detailing their exploits in “finely wrought prose” — as if any work of literature that doesn’t tick all the boxes in that checklist simply isn’t worthy of an attentive readership. The blog format, on the other hand, allows for exactly what the print format does not — firstly in the essentially unlimited length of the individual blog post, and then in the comments spaces at the end of posts and in the aggregation of posts in blog archives which together allow for the perpetual elaboration on and refinement of standards already articulated.

I hope my own blog provides an example of what I mean: cumulatively, a number of posts over the last nine months (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) should give some idea of what I think literature is and is for, while the three on narrative voice (1, 2, 3) should give some idea of how I think certain works have been able to become what I think literature is. None of these has been specifically addressed to the question of how successfully a given work of literature makes itself “literature” as I conceive of it, but the pieces are there for later reference and assemblage — which is more than can be said for much of what appears in print in newspapers and magazines today. There may or may not be a cure for the current state of critical failure, but there is a medium that can soothe the symptoms. When will our otherwise attentive critics give it the attention it deserves?

A Writer’s Writer Speaks

In my estimation, Gerald Murnane is arguably Australia’s greatest living writer of fiction and probably one of the greatest currently at work anywhere in the world. Yesterday, I enjoyed the rare pleasure of listening to Murnane speak at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. Ordinarily, I would avoid such an event; I dislike the often superficial and self-congratulatory atmosphere of literary festivals. Late last year, however, I caught an ABC Radio interview with Murnane in which he discussed his most recent work of fiction, Barley Patch, and I was so struck by the unhesitating, unashamed, and yet entirely amiable way in which he discussed the nature of his fiction that I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear him speak in person. At the outset of that 2009 interview, the interviewer, Peter Mares, noted that Murnane has often been called “a writer’s writer” and he opened the interview by asking Murnane how he reacts to that designation. To his credit, Murnane took the opportunity to respond to that rather insipid question as a means of opening up a more sophisticated discussion of what he actually writes:

Gerald Murnane: It’s flattering. I don’t sit down and think that the next piece of writing that I do will be a writer’s piece of writing, but it seems to come out that way. I’m answering, I think, a question that I might have anticipated from you — well, it certainly comes from other people. They say to me: ‘Why doesn’t your fiction contain such staple things as dialogues…?’

Peter Mares: Plot?

Gerald Murnane: Plot especially. My answer to that is — and this is probably an answer to that same question about being a writer’s writer — that a book that contains plot and dialogue seems to me to work on the assumption that all a reader wants from reading is the illusion that he or she is seeing real events re-enacted. Or even (worse still from my point of view) watching a film. So this simple-minded sort of reader is supposed to pick up a book, read an opening sentence that said, ‘Cynthia and Cyril strolled aimlessly along the foreshore,’ and then all that the reader has to do is read those words and there’s a beautiful little scene like the opening of a film, Cynthia and Cyril walking along the foreshore, and if the reader waits a little longer he or she will be told what colour hair Cynthia had and how tall Cyril was and how good-looking or whatever. My fiction steps aside or avoids that, to me, simple-minded way of doing things. My fiction is a report of what takes place in the mind of a writer. It may have characters — or ‘personages’ is my favourite word, there may be personages like Cynthia and Cyril in it, but there will be lots more.

Peter Mares: I think the term ‘writer’s writer’ could be seen as a kind of backhanded compliment in a way. It’s almost a bit of a warning sign, isn’t it, that these are not your average books, if you like, these are not necessarily easy books to read…?

Gerald Murnane: Well, exactly, that you won’t see… It’s not going to be easy for you to pick up a book that starts as Barley Patch starts and see a film script or see a film unrolling before your eyes. It’s certainly not my purpose when I write but it seems as though I do require people to make a little bit more effort than they would normally with some sorts of books.

Peter Mares: And you do, in fact, in Barley Patch talk about attentive readers and careful readers. Or careful readers, I think, and hasty readers.

Gerald Murnane: Well, the same distinction. The hasty reader wants to see a film unrolled before his or her eyes. The careful reader wants to think: ‘What exactly is happening? What is this extraordinary…? It is a complicated processes whereby I sit here and read these words and things take place in my mind as a result of something that took place in a funny little suburban room five years ago when Gerald Murnane sat down and pretended to be another sort of person and wrote…’ and so we go and the complications unfold, as you can see me waving my arms here to illustrate.

Until I caught that interview, I had never heard a writer of that very particular sort of fiction champion it in a national forum without feeling the need to also defend or excuse it. There was no timid concession that such fiction won’t suit the tastes of every reader, nor was there any lip-service paid to the notion that “mainstream” literary fiction is valuable even if the author’s own work stands far outside the mainstream. There was instead an unapologetic but somehow humble matter-of-factness about Murnane: a gentle self-assuredness that suggested, to me, an assumption on the part of the author that he owes no explanations of why he writes what he writes to anyone who is not already disposed towards reading it. I found that refreshing.

Barley Patch, I should say, is a unique, idiosyncratic, and wholly compelling work of fiction. Even so, as is probably the case with many other admirers of Murnane’s work, I still hold the most enthusiasm for his masterpiece The Plains. Originally published in 1982, this remarkably disciplined metafiction came into being as a novel-length fragment of what was intended to be a much longer work that Murnane never completed. It opens with the unnamed narrator, who self-identifies as a filmmaker, recalling the time he once spent in the vast interior of Australia, which, in this novel, comprises an independent inland republic populated by a community of landowners who spend their days obsessing over the metaphysics of their environment:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.

The Plains, however, is not about the filmmaker’s actual efforts to interpret this landscape so much as it is about the hopelessness of the interpretive exercise and the complexities of the filmmaker’s compulsion to interpret the landscape anyway:

I had unpacked my suitcases some hours earlier. Now my desk was stacked high with folders of notepaper and boxes of cards and an assortment of books with numbered tickets between their pages. On top of the stack was a medium-sized ledger labelled:

    THE INTERIOR
    (FILMSCRIPT)
    MASTER KEY TO CATALOGUE OF
    BACKGROUND NOTES
    AND INSPIRATIONAL MATERIAL

I pulled out a bulky folder labelled Occasional Thoughts — Not Yet in Catalogue and wrote in it…

Nicholas Birns, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, fills in the spaces:

Murnane evokes grasslands and prairies, prizing their capacity for abstraction and indefiniteness, but the plains are also those of language, the ‘Interstitial Plain’ that exists only as it posits the potentiality of every other plain, or plane, of existence. No names of people, or places, are given or asked for. Searches for possibilities are immured in library catalogs. And the filmmaker never makes the film — though the landowners permit him to linger, taking notes for it.

Here, then, is a man who sees himself as a filmmaker but who never actually shoots a reel of film, instead spending his time writing notes that no-one will ever read outlining the possible content of a film that no-one will ever see. This situation, I think, makes The Plains quite a unique work of metafiction. Much metafictional literature is characterised by a fascination with literature itself: it is inward-looking simply because it is drawn to look inwards and interested in what it finds there. The Plains, however, is characterised by a frustration with the shortcomings of an artform other than literature, and only becomes fascinated with literature as a result of that frustration: it is inward-looking because it is the work of a man with an interest in moving images who ultimately finds moving images to be an inadequate means of conveying what he wants to convey about the plains, and who thereafter turns to literature instead as a means of both conveying what he wants to convey about the plains and exploring the inadequacy of moving images to that purpose. So this literature unfolds upon itself as it ponders its own becoming and attempts to account for its not becoming something entirely different — with the result being the exploration of a landscape in impressionistic rather than descriptive terms, even though the impressions conveyed are described as if they were landscape features:

In the years when my work was most often interrupted by my patron’s fondness for scenes, there might have been a handful left of those supporters who talked knowingly sometimes of the neglected filmmaker preparing his great work in the seclusion of the library. They would have been the least likely of anyone at a scene to be deceived by the sight of me pointing an empty camera towards some everyday sight. Perhaps they felt obliged to make some comment on the irrelevance of such things as lenses and light waves to the creation of those images of mine that no one had yet laid eyes on. But usually they joined unnoticed in the general amusement to see, posed as one eager to record the play of light at some moment of an uneventful afternoon, the very man who allowed whole seasons to pass while he sat behind drawn blinds in the least-visited rooms of a silent library.

I seldom wondered what opinion of me predominated among the people who watched and smiled as I took my awkward grip on some antiquated camera and stared obligingly at some empty zone ahead of me. I was far more concerned with those who might one day examine the faulty prints in my patron’s jumbled collection and see me as a man with my eyes fixed on something that mattered. Even the few who had heard or read of my efforts to discover a fitting landscape — even they might have supposed that I sometimes looked no further than my surroundings. No one afterwards could point to a single feature of whatever place I stared at. It was still a place out of sight in a scene arranged by someone who was himself out of sight. But anyone might have decided that I recognised the meaning of what I saw.

And so, on those darkening afternoons, at those scenes whose scenery seemed more often pointed at than observed, whenever the camera in my hand put me in mind of some young woman who might see me years afterwards as a man who saw further than others, I would always ask my patron at last to record the moment when I lifted my own camera to my face and stood with my eye pressed against the lens and my finger poised as if to expose to the film in its dark chamber the darkness that was the only visible sign of whatever I saw beyond myself.

At the start of his discussion yesterday, Murnane mentioned that only a few minutes earlier he had received a phone call advising him that a French translation of The Plains will be released later this year after having been rejected by one French publisher after another for the better part of twenty years. I was stunned to learn that the French, of all possible readers, had not warmed to this novel. As a single word or a single image opens up for the narrator a flood of memories and thought-associations which he then pursues to their ends without losing sight of his original purpose, the continual unfolding of the novel makes it so recognisably Proustian that I would have imagined it to be much more at home in France — or in Europe in general — than it could possibly be in Australia. Murnane himself expressed the same sentiments, and even went on to name In Search of Lost Time as his favourite work of fiction and Proust as one of only three writers from whose work he can still recall specific scenes, passages, and ideas. The other two writers, he continued, were Richard Jefferies and George Borrow, whose writings he is currently re-reading, and drawing on, as he goes about writing a new work of fiction.

On that note, Murnane revealed that he has not one but two new works of fiction in the pipeline: a completed novella, 30,000 words in length, entitled A World of Books, and a novel currently half-finished entitled Border Districts. Of the first book, Murnane said very little except that it is indeed a work of fiction despite the title, and that it will elaborate on the passage in Barley Patch in which the narrator notes that all people and objects in any work of literature are no more than images in the mind of the writer and contends that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Of the second book, Murnane stressed that the title has nothing to do with the contents — he simply enjoys the sound of the words “border districts,” which he took from the name of a local football team in the region of rural Victoria that he currently calls home. He added that the book will have something to do with the interplay between religious fidelity and iconography — that is, spiritual devotion as expressed through stained-glass imagery — and that in writing it he has found himself concentrating on the contrast between his own “non-materialist atheism” and the reverent faith of his brother who serves as a priest.

All good news. But, of course, the true test of the value of yesterday’s discussion was not whether it left me impressed with Murnane himself so much as whether it enticed me to return to his work. It did, and I happily lost an afternoon to re-re-reading one of the two or three greatest novels ever to be published in this country:

I told the plainsmen that I was on a journey, which was true enough. I did not tell them the route I had followed to their town or the direction I might take when I left it. They would learn the truth when The Interior appeared as a film. In the meantime I let them believe I had begun my journey in a distant corner of the plains. And, as I hoped, no one doubted me or even claimed to know the district I had named. The plains were so immense that no plainsman was ever surprised to hear of their encompassing some region he had never seen. Besides, many places far inland were subject to dispute — were they part of the plains or not? The true extent of the plains had never been agreed on.

I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets. [They] were seldom impressed by outbursts of emotion or violent conflicts or sudden calamities. They supposed that the artists who presented such things had been beguiled by the noises of crowds or the profusions of shapes and surfaces in the foreshortened landscapes of the world beyond the plains. The plainsman’s heroes, in life and art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon for thirty years to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed for thirty years only to arrive at the place where he sat — or the man who would never take even the one road that led away from his isolated farmhouse for fear that he would not recognise the place if he saw it from the distant vantage points that others used.

There were historians who suggested that the phenomenon of the plains themselves was responsible for the cultural differences between the plainsmen and Australians generally. The exploration of the plains had been the major event in their history. What had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of wildlife. Trying to appreciate and describe their discoveries, the plainsmen had become unusually observant, discriminating, and receptive to gradual revelations of meaning. Later generations responded to life and art as their forebears had confronted the miles of grassland receding into haze. They saw the world itself as one more in an endless series of plains.

ADDENDUM: The audience question that prompted Murnane to discuss his work-in-progress was posed by one of Murnane’s longstanding correspondents who also runs the blog Sixth In Line. She too has posted an account of yesterday’s discussion and of her history with Murnane.