What every writer dreams of

Across the coffee table from me sits a man who runs a small press. I notice his chair is higher than mine. The year is 1998 and we’ve met in his huge office to discuss publication of my first novel. He’s edited the opening lines to show me his editing style. The third sentence reads: ‘Cockroaches were indirectly to blame for my exile.’ He’s pencilled a forward slash through the adverb. ‘Cockroaches were to blame for my exile.’ It sounds more certain – and more absurd. Though he hasn’t said so, I’ve begun to suspect that the premise needs work. And his edit isn’t my only concern. He’s taped a loose, blonde strand of my hair to the first page. Just because I’ve written, in the context of addiction, about sexual fetishes doesn’t mean I want to see his. Luckily I haven’t yet signed the contract.

A few weeks later I face him in his office again, having shown the contract to a lawyer. This time I’m wearing my hair pulled back so as not to leave any stray strands behind. Steeling myself, I tell him which clauses he’d need to modify for me to sign, but no sooner have the words left my mouth than I sense from the pitiless gleam in his eyes that I’ve crossed a line by daring to challenge his fantasies of dominance. Maybe he thought I’d be as submissive as the narrator of my novel?

‘I offered you something that every writer dreams of,’ he says. ‘A fast track to publication.’ This isn’t strictly true. Most writers dream of an offer from a big publisher with a fat marketing budget; not an offer from a failed writer who, though he’s amassed some capital, couldn’t do a structural edit to save his life. ‘I read it and contacted you within a week,’ he reproaches me. Though my chair is higher than his today, I cringe. ‘You’d been offered publication within a few weeks!’ he continues, as if he can’t fathom my ingratitude. ‘I want to do a rewrite,’ I say, as if it’s nothing personal. ‘Try the other publishers first,’ he says, as if he knows something I don’t. I think I’m getting an inkling after rejections from three top agents (though each was kind enough to offer contract advice), so my ego feels flayed as I walk away.

Soon after that, I pay for a manuscript appraisal. According to the anonymous assessor, ‘The characters appeared to be more like caricatures or types than real people, which is why they did not seem to develop in the course of the action.’ I could unpack the assumptions informing this analysis – i.e., that assessor’s beliefs about ‘real’ people – but you can’t argue with the market. And so the rewrites begin.

It isn’t really my first novel. I still shudder to think of how wilfully I defied submission guidelines: single-spaced type on double-sided pages to save paper (and trees), bound so no pages could escape, with quaint DIY cover art; a wordy first draft that elicited a raft of rejections. Let’s call it naivety. Why my parents would sanction my leaving school sans HSC is anyone’s guess, but according to my report cards, Art was what I did best. And art school rewarded difference – unlike the local literary industry.

A decade on from that manuscript appraisal, I pay for a consultation with a veteran of Oz publishing. Based on a preview of my CV, synopsis and Chapter One of a novel, this expert will tell me what steps to take next. After our morning session I stop at the bathroom en route to the exit and, feeling ripped off, as I sit on the loo, decide to peruse the notes she gave me. But the promising sheaf of A4 pages includes all her notes for the day, far more extensive for her other clients, who’ve made beginners’ mistakes. At least I’ve long since ceased to be a beginner. But my problem, as she’s hinted, is that I’ve failed to create a narrator to whom bourgeois readers might relate.

I came to ‘creative’ writing late, having grown up in a suburban void defined by my factory-worker father’s wage and the social constraints imposed by my housewife mother’s ‘agoraphobia’. I use quote marks not because diagnosing mental illness is a way to invalidate those who refuse to face ‘reality’ – though it is – but because my mother’s problems were emotional. Could reading the right sort of fiction (i.e., not Gone With the Wind or the pap in her magazines) have made a difference? Maybe not… Narcissism, ironically, tends to resist recognition of what it is, making treatment, let alone cure, difficult. And that this is the case with individuals only makes the prospect of healing it at the collective level seem daunting indeed, if not impossible. How do you persuade a global population to act responsibly unless it has the capacity to recognise when it’s wrong?

Which brings me to the issue of ‘what every writer dreams of’. It’s absurd to think all wordsmithery springs from a common impulse – as if Kafka and Dan Brown, or Plath and Pam Ayres, were on the same page. I’ve always wanted my writing to change lives; a few books have changed mine, but they’ve long since gone out of print. Because what publishers look for is difference within sameness – like a dairy yoghurt brand adding new flavours to its range. It takes entrepreneurial flair to market dairy-free yoghurt to vegans. But most dairy product suppliers – and publishers – choose to play safe. Though veganism is trending; and the flavour of the moment, identity politics, has helped. So, good luck getting published if you’re not LGBTQIA+, dispossessed, a migrant, a Muslim, overtly disabled, mentally ill, nor aligned with any other high-profile minority. Would I rather be pigeonholed than invisible? Hard to say when I haven’t yet found my market niche, but the risk is that finding it sort of defeats the purpose of trying to make a difference in the first place.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen two writer friends score two-book deals: one with a major publisher, the other with a small press (if not quite as small as the one run by the man in the huge office). By ‘writer friends’, I mean novelists who need feedback, some of whom treat friendships as a matter of expediency. At least, that describes my erstwhile Writer Friend #1, whose agent hooked a big publisher: a dream come true that looks like juggling interviews, talks, tweeting, blogging and teaching with writing variations on novel #1, the formulaic nature of which laid down the ground rules for all future output. Writer Friend #2, however, enjoyed a less successful debut. A small press means a small budget; and, when editors charge hourly rates, the rougher the draft, the higher the cost of knocking it into shape. But if a publisher takes shortcuts, the end product suffers. Trained in professional editing, I know how much help most writers need – and if problems with not just punctuation, spelling and grammar, but structure, style, voice, continuity, plausibility and logic aren’t sorted, years of work are wasted and that author’s brand is dead in the water. If Writer Friend #2 had asked, I would have said novel #2 wasn’t ready. And having winced my way through an advance review copy, I’ll just say that some things count more than deadlines.

Since turning down that offer in 1998, I’ve honed my craft enough to know that draft was too rough to submit to a legit publisher. I would have lived to regret doing a deal with the devil, whose very small press has predictably long since sunk without a trace.

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What plagiarism looks like

Who remembers the rune craze during the 1980s? Maybe JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy novels, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954), deserve some blame, or maybe it was just part of a boom in oracular kits, a merging of the new-age fetish for divinatory tools with surging capitalistic commodification.

I forget who gave me my first set of runes, a bag of 25 mass-produced ceramic tiles – 24 marked with symbols, one blank – and a small maroon hardback handbook containing a commentary by Ralph Blum, a market-savvy Harvard graduate. Not that I cared about his credentials. And the runes, as he presented them, seemed best suited to Yes/No questions. But that’s ancient history. So where was I going with this?

In a former life I used to teach divination techniques. It was just an expedient sideline; my business was astrology (which some experts validly call divination, though in those days I denied it) – but where does the logic of horoscopes end and the art of divination begin? Somehow I found myself reading cards at weekend markets, then doing longer consultations at home, then teaching tarot classes. Some astrologers think what they do is more logical than riffing on random spreads of cards or coins or tea-leaves, and I agree. But astrology charts and tarot cards share certain basic features that also pertain to runes, and I wasn’t elitist. So I offered a workshop on runes, having explored them exhaustively while studying various sources, and a rune maker who answered my ad asked if I’d accept handcrafted runes as payment. Faced with the prospect of teaching a student whose knowledge exceeded mine, I panicked. Not for the first time, I felt like a fraud. Yet how could I turn him away? And at the end of the day he thanked me; he’d learned something new.

One way in which astrology can offer fresh perspectives is that most things you can think of possess planetary correspondences. Presumably Blum discovered the latter when he began to bone up on runes, prior to producing his wildly profitable guide. Early in The Book of Runes (1982) he describes how he arrived at his insights:

I worked on through the night, taking each Rune in my hand, just sitting with it, meditating on it, copying down what came to me. Now and then, when the flow dwindled, I turned to the I Ching and asked for a hexagram that revealed the essence of a particular Rune. The spirit of some of those readings is incorporated here (p. 26)…

Despite the blow-by-blow detail, Blum’s account is incomplete. He does refer to ‘copying down what came to me’ – but did it leap off his shelves? Because, besides the I Ching, he also consulted an astrological text: Relating (1978) by Liz Greene, published four years before The Book of Runes first appeared.

Though the examples listed below aren’t the only ones I noticed, they do expose Blum’s process as less intuitive and more derivative than it seems he cared to admit. The relevant lines from Relating follow those from The Book of Runes:

In mythology, a strange, androgynous figure, keeper of the keys to knowledge, Mercury carried messages between the gods and between gods and humanity. This rune symbolizes the urge to integrate unconscious motive with conscious recognition (Blum, pp. 61–62).

… in mythology a strange and androgynous figure who possesses the keys to knowledge and who carries messages to and fro between the gods and between gods and men. Mercury […] is primarily the symbol of the urge to understand, to integrate unconscious motive with conscious recognition (Greene, pp. 36–37).

While Blum links the abovementioned rune, Ansuz, with the trickster god Loki, more reliable sources say that Ansuz translates to invocations of the great god who created the runes, Odin.

… the life you have been living has outgrown its form, which must die so that life energy can be released in a new birth, a new form (Blum, p. 65).

… life, because it is ceaselessly changing, inevitably outgrows every form, which in turn must die so that life can be released into a new birth, and into a new form (Greene, p. 48).

Blum doesn’t quite quote Greene verbatim; he tends to personalise and simplify her wording, a sound formula for the mass market…

Prepare, then, for opportunity disguised as loss. It could involve the loss of someone or something to which there is an intense emotional bond, and through which you are living a part of your life, a part that must be retrieved so you can live it out for yourself. Now, in some way, that bond is being severed, a relationship radically changed, a death experienced. Seek among the ashes and discover a new perspective and a new birth (Blum, pp. 65–66).

There is always rebirth after death, and the new form is always greater than the old; but when put to the test, the majority of individuals do not believe this, and feel they have irretrievably lost something. Usually it is some thing (or someone) to whom there is an intense emotional bond, and through which, in some way, the individual is living a part of his life – a part that should be retrieved so that he can live it out for himself. In some way the bond is lost, the relationship changed, and there is the experience of a death. And if one seeks, among these ashes he will find a new perspective and a new birth (Greene, p. 49).

These last two excerpts of Blum’s, cherry-picked from Greene’s notes on Pluto, link Uruz (better known as Ur) to the dwarf planet discovered in 1930. Yet the runes date from a time when only five planets were known: those visible, along with the sun and the moon, to the naked eye, hence the seven days of the week bear their names. (Recall the TV series American Gods, in which Mr Wednesday, played by Ian McShane, is revealed as Odin.)

Nauthiz is the great teacher disguised as the bringer of pain and limitation. It has been said that only at the point of greatest darkness do we become aware of the Light within us by which we come to recognize the true creative power of the Self (Blum, p. 70).

… Saturn is the great teacher, disguised as the bringer of pain and limitation, for it is only at the point of darkness and decay – which the alchemists called the nigredo or the Caput Mortuum, The Dead Head, the first stage of the alchemical work – that we become aware of the Other within us, the true creative power of the Self (Greene, p. 42).

As Blum concedes, It has been said. But why deny Greene credit?

Laguz fulfills our need to immerse ourselves in the experience of living without having to evaluate or understand. It speaks to the desire for comfort and the satisfaction of emotional needs, to the lunar side of our nature. For while the sun strives for differentiation, the moon draws us toward unity and merging (Blum, p. 91).

The moon portrays the urge to sink oneself into the experience of living, without having to evaluate or understand the experience; it also symbolises the urge for comfort, and for the satisfaction of emotional needs. While the sun strives for differentiation, the moon strives for relationship and merging of identity (Greene, pp. 33–34).

Blum seems to think that unity and relationship are synonyms or interchangeable concepts. But unity can mean different things, one of which is singleness.

Laguz signifies what alchemists called the conjunctio, or sacred marriage. In fairy tales, it is the end where the hero and heroine live happily ever after (Blum, p. 91).

It is the harmonious integration of these two symbols which the alchemists described in their coniunctio or sacred marriage, and which in fairy tales is the end of the story, the hero and his beloved living happily ever after (Greene, p. 36).

The two symbols Greene refers to are the sun and the moon. Blum errs in associating a moon-ruled rune with the idea of union. Was he overtired from sitting up all night? As he says on page 24, ‘It was a warm summer evening and I couldn’t sleep, so I went to my study and began rearranging books.’

Change, freedom, invention and liberation are all attributes of this Rune. Drawing it indicates a pressing need within the psyche to break free from constricting identification with material reality and to experience the world of archetypal mind. […] the onset of power may be such as to rip away the fabric of what you previously knew as your reality (Blum, p. 93)…

In the individual chart, Uranus, the first god of the heavens and the spirit, seems to personify the need within the psyche to break free of identification with material reality and to experience the world of archetypal mind. So in traditional astrology Uranus is said to symbolise the urge for change, for freedom, for invention and liberation […] It appears to come back to the individual as a sudden event emanating from “without” which rips away the fabric of what he has previously identified as his reality (Greene, p. 43)…

With the discovery of the outer planets thanks to technology, astrologers had to update their system of planetary rulerships. But these recent inclusions don’t negate the usefulness of the old rulers. Intent on updating the runes, Blum misses the affinity between the meanings of Hagalaz (Hagal/Haegl) and Saturn.

You may find yourself entangled in a situation to whose implications you are, in effect, blind. You may be powerless to do anything except submit, surrender, even sacrifice some long-cherished desire (Blum, p. 102).

Neptunian “events” are generally those that entangle the individual in a situation to whose implications he is in some way blind. In consequence, he finds himself powerless at a certain point to do anything except sacrifice some long-cherished desire (Greene, p. 47).

And I could list more examples. For instance, Blum parrots Greene on Venus–Mars, but attributes these qualities to the moon. His cut-up method of generating content seems a poor substitute for deep or scholarly knowledge of runes. Yet perhaps he offers a tacit confession in the afterword:

At our best, each of us is a channel through which God’s wisdom flows, and we are sensitive to the inner guidance that provides us with the intuitive knowing we require. But life can be hard and difficult and we are not always clear. The channels that we are become blocked by fears, silted up with self-doubt. We do not always hear the still small voice that is our natural inheritance (p. 113).

If Blum’s suggestive interpretations have resonated with countless seekers who, propelled by some burning question, have turned to his text for help, then maybe Greene, a Jungian psychologist and scholar, deserves some acknowledgement? In fact, Blum cites her seminal text in a list of ‘GUIDES TO THE TRANSFORMATIONAL PROCESS’ near the back of a later edition, if not in the bibliography. Still, I can’t help wondering what other authors he borrowed from.

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disembodied voices

In recent years I’ve begun to write more fiction from a male perspective. My earliest attempts scored mixed reviews from women, but enough men were taken in that I opted to continue. Not only does maleness free my narrators to speak and act in new ways; it justifies the absence of female themes that don’t grab me.

When, as a teen, I first read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, a masterpiece of gothic romance, I didn’t know she’d published it under a man’s name (in 1847; her novelist sisters did the same). As for the male narrator whose account frames the story, I just took it for granted that a woman could credibly mimic a man. And once I dared to do likewise (or, in third person, to track male thoughts) it felt more natural than I’d expected. But hey, in our patriarchal culture, women listen to men all day. Men dominate politics, current affairs, philosophy, industry, science etc., and when they write fiction, more women than men tend to read it (and far fewer men read what women write). Which means women spend extended time in men’s heads: we live and work in spaces they’ve designed, learn facts that reflect their left-brain bias, watch films they so often direct (with their masculine aesthetics). No wonder the question ‘What do men want?’ seldom excites speculation. We know what they want because, in general, at least compared to us, they’ve got it.

Meanwhile, men like Mark Zuckerberg own vast social media platforms whose users, through their online activity, enable the refinement of algorithms that train AI to anticipate their desires even as it trains them to want what they’re selectively fed – confusing what’s in our hearts or guts with what’s programmed into our heads until the gap between us and machines collapses.

Reading countless novels by men before I’d learned to think for myself, I innocently internalised all those male perspectives. Never having seen them critiqued, how could I reject them? Most of my reading, unlike other activities, was unsupervised: my parents and the school librarians seemed quite oblivious to the subversive possibilities of the texts lining their shelves. And maybe I could relate to male narrators because by the time I began to ride horses (age nine), I identified with my father rather than my uptight mother. He wasn’t afraid of snakes, spiders, strangers, sunburn, deep water or horseshit. And though I read adventure stories by and about women, the average man enjoyed more freedom (while I spent all my spare time reading).

Not that gender matters. The problem is masculine energy untempered by the feminine, and vice versa, whether it comes with a male or a female identity; because what’s missing creates a vacuum, a need that can’t be satisfied. My male narrators aren’t like that. And yet, having failed to follow the pack, they tend to be alienated.

As a student of Marxism in the early ’80s, author Anthony Macris dwelt on the question of alienation: ‘For a long time it was all I could see, all I could feel, this massive, inexorable shift at all levels of being towards the dominance of capitalist rationality.’ He continues: ‘And moreover, it was something I would be expected to participate in if I was to prosper or flourish as human being in any way.’ Apparently he rose to that expectation, exploring through fiction the effect of the ever-increasing penetration of market forces into everyday life. Yet he acknowledges the ‘conflict, or contradiction, or irony’ of ‘how to make any meaningful statement on reification in a commodified, reified world, which extends to the publishing industry’. And novelist Jarrett Kobek concurs, re the e-book version of his satire I Hate the Internet (2016):

Ah, yes. Ultimately, we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

Maybe. So, to adapt successfully to prevailing conditions, an author needs to embrace or, at least, tolerate contradiction. Scholar McKenzie Wark writes:

The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic detail – filler – to make it appear otherwise. It excludes the totality so that bourgeois subjects can keep prattling on about their precious “inner lives”.

The totality according to Wark includes climate change, the omission of which theme negates any claim to ‘realism’. But one look at the tools now running our country, with their brief for a descent into hell, should tell us reality doesn’t sell. And as our collective future grows ever more uncertain, escapist fiction continues to do well.

When reading, I tend to hear an author’s words in my head (one reason why the widespread belief that hearing disembodied voices = schizophrenia seems misguided; all voices come from somewhere). The risk is that too much listening or reading can numb us (like all excess consumption), leading to passivity and failure to feel or think. Say, isn’t this sort of what digital culture supports and, even if not overtly, to a great extent enforces through male-conceived, high-tech online and urban environments that bombard us with images of young women, urge us to buy now and pay later, oblige us to agree to endless Ts & Cs with each transaction, and demand that we generate yet more passwords? Is the ubiquitous use of female robo-voices – to field your call, assist your purchase, navigate while you drive etc. – meant to disguise the identities of the minority of men who profit from our dependence on the ‘convenience’ they offer?

Out of touch with nature, despite or because of how we exploit it, we seek ourselves in the mirror of technology. And yet the science that’s enabled our unprecedented dissociation is increasingly revealing how profoundly nature inhabits us, our bodies hosting vast colonies of microbes that regulate our health and even our psyches, while we indulge fantasies of autonomy through gaming, social networking, mediated news feeds etc. Yet what is our insatiable hunger for more information, and the global cult of narcissistic self-marketing (for those of us with something to sell, which is most of us, even if it’s just a fake persona), but a last-ditch bid to outrun redundancy – a collective explosion of unconscious protest against being superseded by a godlike AI that soon won’t need us? As we empty our memories into corporate digital databases, uploading photos to Facebook etc. to free up more mental space by forgetting, are we exercising the greatest awareness of which we’re humanly capable? Or are we following the path of least resistance that leads to extinction? Yet if we mount an extinction rebellion, a bunch of unethical self-serving men get threatened and start drafting laws geared to hold our giving a damn against us, with the aim of crushing dissent because that’s fascism, regardless of gender.

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formative fiction

Most writers can reel off a handful of titles of books they’d call formative, typically read for the first time during their teens. One of mine is Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë, a classic of incomparable passion despite no explicit sexual content. Another is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). The most engrossing novel prescribed during my four years at high school, it marked gen Xers Donna Tartt and Alex Garland, to judge by their debut novels, The Secret History (1992) and The Beach (1996), respectively: the former transplanting the action – secluded group turning savage – to classics students in the academy; the latter to a South-East Asian island backpacker mecca.

Author Rachel Kushner says the books you read when young ‘sink in deep and are a part of your encoding’. Indeed. But the impact of books read before puberty is harder to gauge, their contents hazier. I know I read Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows and Pookie and the Swallows, or they were read to me, but I can’t recall my response, beyond liking the pictures of anthropomorphised animals enough to want to illustrate books when I grew up. Not until I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, at nineteen, did the transformative power of literature hit me.

Kushner says she read The Catcher in the Rye at thirteen. Deterred by the cryptic title, I gave it a miss at school: defying authority like the protagonist. My English teacher, Mr M, remonstrated with me in vain; I spent too much time alone reading already. The shocking news, years later, that Mr M had shot himself fatally, saddened me (he’d treated us, at 14, like young adults) and I regretted not having been more receptive. Now I wonder how much he’d related to the troubled narrator of JD Salinger’s teen angst classic. When I finally read it to humour a wannabe YA writer, I found it tame compared to The Bell Jar (1963), a female slant on related themes. Though The Catcher in the Rye preceded it (1951), Plath didn’t stop at suicidal ideation, topping herself a month after The Bell Jar was published. (Salinger died of natural causes at 91.)

Before that came scores of horsy books, most of which ended happily – unlike ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen, more disturbing, with its Christian morality, than Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure (1969) or Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974). While those exploit fear of the deep, Andersen conjured worse fears: oblivion or limbo awaits the mermaid when the prince weds someone else.

Last year I sold the family home, but kept a few books found in the process. I wanted to revisit stories I recalled as formative, which might have played a part in shaping my expectations of life or, at least, the fiction I’d written. So I began at random with a novel that looked familiar: Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier. Yet no recognition dawned as I read. It seems I’d only read about it, which may be for the best. Neither the passive narrator nor the manipulative titular character would have set a good example. Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) had marked du Maurier: poor young narrator falls for rich older man haunted by his psycho ex-wife until his manor house burns down.

As I reached for the next book, a historical romance, I promised myself I’d stop if it didn’t impress me. Apart from Rebecca, the closest I’d come to reading romance in at least two decades was AS Byatt’s Booker-winning, genre-juggling Possession; so I had doubts about rereading Jenny (1957), a bodice ripper by Ada Lewis. (Who?) Embarrassingly, I found it unputdownable. Who’d have thought? Uncommonly immune to my analytical powers, it seemed as familiar as if I’d once learned every line by heart; as if key scenes hadn’t just imprinted my mind but become part of it. How could its trite conventions exert such a potent spell? Was I compelled onwards by the uncanny impression that Jenny’s voice already lived in my head?

No doubt the first line intrigued teenage me, hinting at sex and sin: ‘Today, as I came out of Mr. Currie’s glove shop, I saw a harlot being whipped through the street at the tail of a wagon.’ And on the next page the narrator says: ‘It’s not that I am afraid. But once you have seen the face of disaster, you are marked. Afterwards you do not see things as other people do.’ Though I didn’t know it, these lines foreshadowed my future.

The jacket on my copy shows a sepia portrait of a pretty redhead with a low neckline, her visible arm cropped above the elbow, a gendered lack her other charms supposedly offset. Pert-nosed, quick-witted, born illegitimately, Jenny Archer is the quintessential romantic heroine. Most men she meets desire her and several are hopelessly smitten, including the dark and handsome hero, her fair and impossibly handsome first lover, her violently jealous half-brother and her bull-necked country cousin. My youthful naivety made Jenny educational (a pregnant woman’s nipples change colour?); the narrator at nineteen seemed old to me in my early (or mid? I was sheltered) teens. A shy magnet for misfits, I envied her.

Now, I recognise echoes of the gothic romances of the Brontës, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Then, I hadn’t yet heard of them. Jenny appeared on the sunroom shelf as a singular invention, standing out from the far less seductive books around it. And after Lewis’s deftly crafted page-turner, the requisite happy ending of which, like a slap in the face, restored critical distance, I revisited another anomaly from my parents’ shelves: the notorious bestseller Peyton Place (1956) by Grace Metalious. It reminded the adult me of Middlemarch (1871–2) with all its small-town characters, if not the depth, scope and intelligence of George Eliot’s classic (nor could it even rival Jenny for style, pace, wit and suspense). But I grew up reading for hours each day to escape. An anomaly myself amid kids of suburban white-collar workers, I longed for relatable role models. Drama and tragedy gripped me partly because I craved accounts of individuals pushing the boundaries, giving free rein to wild desires and redefining the terms of acceptable self-expression.

Both coming-of-age novels despite their different genres, Jenny and Peyton Place end well for their heroines, who encounter poverty, sexual scandal, domestic violence, abortion, murder, madness and suicide, yet emerge stronger and wiser. I never expected these themes to dominate my writing. Nor did I aspire to write at all (unlike Allison, the character in Peyton Place based on Metalious). Yet, other novels from my teens, like Stephen King’s Carrie and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, weren’t so memorable (is that why horror and fantasy rarely tempt me?). What could a girl whose emotions wreak havoc without her even needing to speak or dwarfish Middle-earthers with hairy feet possibly teach me about my own latent talents or sexuality?

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The Lie of the Learned: Sydney Writers’ Festival 2019

RACHEL KUSHNER: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE May 2, 6.30–7.30pm University of Sydney Social Sciences Lecture Theatre (‘One of America’s finest writers, Rachel Kushner, joins Professor Annamarie Jagose to discuss her latest novel The Mars Room and a body of work that traverses eras and inner lives.’)

The theme of this event, the first I attended, bore no connection to the festival’s broad theme of ‘Lie to Me’. Nor did Kushner’s examples of true stories used in The Mars Room, about ‘what it means to be poor and female in America’, i.e., incarcerated. As for ‘what it means to be free’, the conversation dwelt instead on characteristics of the US prison system with which Kushner is familiar through her human-rights work inside. From which it follows that freedom means, among other things, privacy – an idea that begs the question of just how free any of us can be as our technologies monitor and regulate our contacts and behaviours with increasing invasiveness.

Kushner opened the session by reading from The Mars Room. And her evident concern with humanising prisoners, many of whom she counts as friends, is commendable. Yet nothing about her writing tempted me to read the rest of her novel. However, she did discuss some content that intrigued me. So, later, I searched through The Mars Room and read the passage that opens Chapter 10, and though I could find no specific acknowledgement, I knew the account of killing and eating a wild porcupine had been lifted from the Unabomber’s diaries (owned by a friend who’d decoded them). But to what end? It can’t have been her intention to upstage her own invention, but having recently read a haunting essay on Kaczynski, I found his words more gripping than hers. It’s easy to imagine him killing people with the same detachment that makes his record of dispatching the porcupine so creepy. But what’s that got to do with the injustices of the prison system?

Embedding readymade diary entries in fiction seems almost like cheating. And it’s not hard to sympathise with a character whose crimes arise from social injustice or disadvantage; while too easy to despise an educated psychopath, to deny them the empathy they couldn’t feel for their victims. Does Kushner need to emphasise her contempt for Kaczynski so her use of his words won’t be construed as politically incorrect? Funnily enough, Kaczynski took a dim view of leftists and his critique is no less relevant today because he’s batshit crazy – though, like Kushner, I’m quoting him out of context:

Leftism is in the long run inconsistent with wild nature, with human freedom and with the elimination of modern technology. Leftism is collectivist; it seeks to bind together the entire world (both nature and the human race) into a unified whole. But this implies management of nature and of human life by organized society, and it requires advanced technology. […] Assuming that industrial society survives, it is likely that technology will eventually acquire something approaching complete control over human behavior.

The thing is, information freed from its original context characterises contemporary culture, affecting elections (shame, Morrison, shame!) and causing widespread, ongoing confusion about global warming, immigration, corporate surveillance and so much more.

Which reminds me that, though I find Kaczynski’s crimes indefensible, Kushner’s appropriation of his diaries unsettled me. But hey, I grew up having my right to privacy denied by parents who cared deeply about theirs.

Anyway, what ‘free’ meant to me in the context of this event was not having to pay for a front row seat a few metres from two engaging speakers, an increasingly rare treat with each new Sydney Writers’ Festival, which seems ever more geared to humouring well-heeled baby boomers and less inclusive of struggling students and pensioners who might read and write. (Which sounds like our government’s style of funding…)

CAN YOU SPOT A LIAR? May 3, 1.30–2.30pm Carriageworks, Bay 20 (‘Crime reporter Matthew Condon, investigative journalist Kate McClymont and forensic psychiatrist Dr Calum Smith talk with Chris Taylor about whether it’s possible to spot a liar.)

It’s often the case that festival panels not only lack the charged interaction of live TV panel shows (e.g., Q&A) but disappoint like short story anthologies of uneven quality. And the price is comparable. So I went to this event only because a friend shouted me. The shrink was the sole panelist with more to offer than anecdotes (yawn!) but Taylor didn’t give him a chance. Nor did he leave enough time for questions from the audience. Relieved when this undisguised exercise in marketing ended, my friend and I talked for hours about the liars in our lives.

IAN PARKER: THE TALENTED DAN MALLORY May 4, 10–11am Carriageworks, Bay 24 (‘Malcolm Knox speaks with New Yorker writer Ian Parker about his viral investigation into the lies and deceptions trailing bestselling thriller writer Dan Mallory.’)

In this session Parker and Knox, a top local investigative journo, discussed an author who’s just as unreliable as the narrator of his debut thriller and instant #1 New York Times bestseller, The Woman in the Window, after which audience members asked Parker lots of questions, including whether he thought his story would ‘change anything’. Parker, who presents as self-effacing, yet who’d need to be phenomenally tenacious, didn’t think so, but the question struck me as vague. And what did this woman think needed changing?

Funnily enough, Mallory’s history of lying in public about dramatic medical conditions, whether his own or those of others (e.g., his battle with cancer, the disease that supposedly killed his mother), reminded me of someone my friend had discussed the previous day, who, since they’d been dating, had suffered an impressive array of serious if invisible mental and physical afflictions, then raged and threatened to end their two-and-a-half-year-old relationship whenever my friend dared refer to not yet having met anyone who knows them nor even once been to their home.

For those of us faced with people whose stories don’t add up, whether on the personal or political front, surely it’s useful to read about real-life cases of deceit, if only because the knowledge that such pathologies exist could help us to see manipulation for what it is and to resist it.

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Dementia is relative

The last time I visited my mother she expressed great surprise. And not because she hadn’t been warned in advance: I stopped doing that around the time she forgot that phones were an option. She isn’t surprised when ‘waiters’ bring meals and meds or put her to bed, so she did seem to know who I was… until she asked me about the weather ‘where you come from’.

Maybe because memory failed her, she sidestepped questions about her own life by politely inquiring after mine. How did I feel about ‘changing countries’? What did I do ‘in England’? I explained I’d spent only two weeks there more than 25 years ago. So then she just stared at the mute TV, confused as to why she couldn’t hear it, while a report on a TV in the next room attributed the decline of Earth’s oceans to humans.

At one point my mother said she hadn’t seen any magazines, though four lay within easy reach. The copy of Hello! open in front of her gave me a clue: lacking recall of me, she’d taken cues from a glossy British weekly.

This is what dementia looks like. And yet not even her doctors can say exactly when my mother’s ignorance of me began to signify brain changes rather than mere disdain. When did chronic depression tip over into ‘dementia’? Apparently, professionals use the label loosely (also true of the word ‘hysteria’ during the Victorian era; labels tend to shift the focus off the context and onto their subject). And for the purposes of these musings, I’ll use the word loosely too.

So if dementia can look like, e.g., someone reduced to viewing others exclusively through the lens of whatever media they’ve been consuming, the condition could be said to afflict our whole society, the severity of its symptoms in each of us just a matter of degree.

Since my mother’s move into residential aged care, I’ve watched the progress of her dementia speed up. Carers are quick to locate the cause somewhere in her brain – but what about the system? Surrounded by residents with vacant expressions who don’t interact, free only to refuse social contact (such as it is), and denied any privacy, who wouldn’t slide towards mindless oblivion? And maybe my mother, who’s never read widely, let alone travelled far, while warding off challenges to her values, had a head start?

In our society it’s not just the aged who face deepening isolation, with more and more activities that used to involve direct human contact – banking, shopping, studying, chatting etc. – migrating online. Touch, smell, and visual and aural complexity are fading from the field of daily social interaction, especially for those who live alone (an increasingly common phenomenon).

Once upon a time, our species had respect (palely echoed today by green activism) for the vast web of terrestrial life. But as our brains grew in size we began to move up the food chain. And now, having enjoyed a brief interlude on top, we’ve been displaced by technology. In the vast artificial web that newly connects us, people are disposable, places are negotiable, and things are the new religion. Things – machines – make life more convenient, so who’s complaining? But today, many bank staff can’t add a few figures manually, never mind manage long division. Social media is training our brains to respond to ‘likes’, infantile emojis and throwaway comments the way a lab rat’s brain responds to a hit of cocaine. And as social media moguls like Mark Zuckerberg know, reward for next to no effort promotes compliance and docility.

According to psychiatrist and brain researcher Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary (2009), our whole society demonstrates a left-hemisphere emphasis, evident in its focus on detail to the detriment of the big picture. Yet long before I began to read his paradigm-busting tome, even I could see that our reality is atomised. For the sake of analogy, take the plastic polluting our air, earth and oceans, its degrading microparticles hidden in the countless creatures (marketed as seafood) that eat and breathe them, so that humans keep consuming what they’ve tried to get rid of.

Like plastic waste, dementia can’t be neatly corralled. And yet our society lumps sufferers of the latter together (in facilities that bury them like landfill) as if their slippage were their identity. A common response when I volunteer facts about my mother to nursing home staff is the single, simple word ‘Dementia’ – an institutionally sanctioned excuse for not paying too much attention.

Of course my take is generalised and simplistic. But so is the standard medical narrative, which sometimes seems designed above all to disguise its own ignorance. And to what extent does ageism stop society at large from inquiring more closely? Like most, if not all, mental health diagnoses, dementia carries a stigma, which predisposes those not yet affected to dissociate – as if we weren’t dissociated already.

‘Dementia’ as an explanation is like an injunction not to think. And given similarly simplistic accounts in other areas of life, too many tend to take them at face value. Not that our education system equips us to challenge official versions of reality. Rewarded in the short term for conforming, the majority adopt prescribed roles, a compromise that seldom pays off if or when they get old.

Maintaining optimal cognitive function means bypassing well-worn paths through the brain to engage with the external world in multiple, improvised ways – such as if, due to injury, you were to use your left hand instead of the right, or toes or teeth instead of fingers. According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself (2010):

Anything that requires highly focused attention will help [the control system for plasticity]—learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material (p. 87).

Does solving challenging puzzles include grappling with new kinds of literature? Of course any suggestion that dependency on social media, the popular press and/or formulaic fiction etc. is stunting our neural potential can be criticised as elitist. And it seems unlikely that lovers of difficult reading (Ulysses? Infinite Jest?) run less risk of developing dementia. Reading texts that bend and stretch the mind is no kind of substitute for reading the world and deeply comprehending it. Nonetheless, a diet of The Australian Women’s Weekly, Reader’s Digest and Hello! doesn’t come recommended.

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Everything is connected

One of the oft-discussed features of the mental disorder called schizophrenia is an extreme preoccupation with meaning. In a society increasingly suffering from the malaise of meaninglessness – a sense that something is missing exploited by a vast range of purveyors of books, DVDs, workshops, courses, retreats, spiritual tourism and more – the pathologising of failure to monetise a sense of meaning may itself be symptomatic of a collective disorder.

A sense of meaning tends to emerge when we see connections between things. Symbols and signs hold meaning only to the extent that they point to or represent something else. Some meanings, such as those represented by $$, remain constant compared to, say, the underrated significance of mass extinction.

With the rise of science, or rationalism, many old systems of meaning (e.g., astrology) have lost their former status. What once was plain to see (e.g., planetary line-ups, eclipses etc.) has been displaced by increasingly mediated, specialised, theoretical research. And with the explosion of data attending each new discovery, today’s info overload alongside heated debate about how to tackle global warming, and other such threats to life as we know it, has fostered an atmosphere of fragmentation.

It’s a case of TMI, whether from too many sources or from only one but strategically distorted, and often presented in simplistic terms or disconnected from context. Bombarded by input 24/7, we often struggle to discriminate between real and fake news, truth and spin. We’ve never had access to more facts and on such a massive scale, yet much of what we learn leads to confusion. We overdose on factoids then seek yet more distraction. In a consumerist age where such notions as an all-seeing God and an orderly cosmos are outmoded, we’re shoppers trying on a range of options for restoring meaning. Imagine the appeal of a package that promises to simplify and demystify how our universe works. What if Einstein got it all wrong?

But in a world where packaging counts for more than content, basic psychology might trump a PhD in physics if you want to sell an alternative cosmology. The meteoric development of science and high tech in recent decades has caused many to fear – or experience – redundancy. No wonder some turn to YouTube, where both experts and cranks can share their views and news, subject to their Google ranking. Online, for instance, flat-earthers and those compelled to convince them that Earth is round can engage in a virtual shouting match on a level playing field. Like democratic votes, hits decide whose theory rules.

In the early ’90s I read a book called Worlds in Collision (1950) by a Freudian shrink, Immanuel Velikovsky, whose highly creative synthesis of analytic theory and ancient myth put a new spin on the history of our solar system. Supposedly, catastrophic events described in the Old Testament and the myths of ancient cultures, Eastern and Western, had been repressed at the collective level. So the human race needed to face the truth – overcome our species’ amnesia – to avert nuclear doom and realise world peace. His ideas had such an impact on the ’60s and ’70s counterculture that some of his acolytes never outgrew them, but continued the work of their guru, disseminating their findings online, soliciting crowdfunding for research… So his vision lives on in The Thunderbolts Project, whose founders are senior citizens now. And what most struck me about a YouTube presentation by one, electric universe theorist, Wal Thornhill, was his pre-emptive introduction:

Before I tell the epic story, a warning. Our education systems train students to memorise a litany of facts which produces global groupthink. Students are not given the time or encouragement to critically examine the history of ideas. A leading researcher into the learning functions of the divided brain, Dr Iain McGilchrist, has shown such blinkered left-hemisphere training renders students functionally blind to alternative ways of looking at a problem. ‘The left hemisphere simply blocks out everything that doesn’t fit with its take. It doesn’t see it, actually, at all.’ So scientists with their narrow specialised training may look at but cannot see what to a non-expert may seem obvious. They will be the last to see a paradigm shift in the making.

McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, sure looks more thoroughly researched than Thornhill’s ‘epic story’, though what follows Thornhill’s induction (forgive the electrical pun) went over my head. I can’t actually prove that Earth never orbited Saturn – but his loose logic arouses suspicion. (Take this random example of ‘what to a non-expert may seem obvious’: ‘In reality… the horizon will always be at eye level no matter how high you go! No curvature will be seen.’ Obvious until surveying instruments confuse the issue.) Nor could I make sense of Thornhill’s concluding warning:

Along with the genius Carl Jung, [Velikovsky] warned that mankind is his own worst enemy. So the cultural change offered by Electric Universe cosmology is essential for our survival. By offering a real understanding of the universe and our history, it offers hope and inspiration where presently there is none. There is far more to life in the electric universe than is dreamt of presently. We are all intimately connected with each other and the Earth.

Do such platitudes encourage one ‘to critically examine’ Thornhill’s ideas? And as Jung’s genius didn’t extend to physics, what does his warning, or Velikovsky’s, have to do with the price of fish? For all their brilliance, Thornhill’s heroes (shrinks, including McGilchrist) aren’t scientists – and Thornhill’s conclusion has nothing to do with the physical universe. He promises something less tangible than knowledge – salvation from fear, despair, aloneness and emptiness. In a society characterised by left-hemisphere dominance, such feelings are epidemic. But mightn’t the opposite blind us to category mistakes?

The height of Velikovsky’s fame came late. A celebrity in his 70s, he inspired students and outsiders all over America with his heresies. Accused by others of delusions of grandeur, he lacked the humility essential to the work of a historian – variations in translation, selective revisions over millennia and the subjectivity of memory, among other issues, render all historical accounts provisional. His faith in biblical history, though, led Velikovsky, trained as a shrink, to radically rethink other disciplines (e.g., physics and astronomy, a far cry from theories of the unconscious). And yet, unsatisfied with cult status as an anti-establishment hero, he never ceased chasing mainstream acceptance for his ideas.

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