Why I don’t read (much) Australian fiction

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This month, a friend sent me a link to an out-of-date article, ‘What’s the story with Australian fiction?’ It looks, inconclusively (as such features tend to), at why we don’t embrace our own fiction writers. My friend, who incidentally seldom reads fiction of any kind, guessed that the article’s thesis (such as it is) might still apply.

That Oz readers ‘seem less interested in their own fiction’, writes Jane Sullivan, ‘might be part of a worldwide trend towards a less literate culture’. She then quotes Charles McGrath of the New York Times: ‘We seem to be slowly turning into a nation of “creative writers”, more interested in what we have to say ourselves than in reading or thinking about what anyone else has to say.’ His statement, with ‘seem to be’ and ‘slowly’, sounds tentative. Yet since 2004 these trends have accelerated. And this time capsule left me nostalgic; nowhere does Sullivan mention the impact of digital culture. Today, she might well ask: ‘What’s the story with fiction per se?’

Now, maybe I’m too emotionally invested to be objective. But what if the escapist need that fiction once fulfilled is being replaced by the all-encompassing special world of online activity? What if we’re all fast becoming characters in our own collaborative fiction? I can step out of my life, vacate my body, just by ‘logging in’; and with the miniaturisation of technology, no-one ever needs to log off. In 2004, Oz author Amanda Lohrey said she believed people were ‘getting their “narrative fix” from cinema and television’, but these purely passive entertainments have been superseded – by, e.g., the interactive virtual world of online gaming, where you get to be a hero or heroine in a narrative of your own co-creating.

Meanwhile, countless consumers of narrative feel called to be critics, if only on Amazon – a luxury (or a symptom?) of full-blown capitalism. Why the increasingly irresistible push for us all to air our opinion, as witnessed on web sites or blogs where one posting might within hours rate hundreds of comments? The image of countless minnows thrashing and flipping about in a net comes to mind: food for prey on a scale that, in relative terms, dwarfs the mightiest whale. Surely it can’t be breaking news that humans aren’t at the top of the food chain? We’ve ceded our awfully short-lived reign to technology. And though we still like to fantasise that it’s serving us and not the reverse, mightn’t our growing need to be noticed and read (vs. calmly observing and reading) point to an unprecedented crisis of ego? Apparently, depression is on the rise in the West – but what if this disorder is bipolar in essence? Aren’t most of us over-hyped, prone to lows alternating with manic excitement? Studies have shown that depression afflicts above-average numbers of writers (Byron, Styron, Woolf, Plath, Foster Wallace, Wurtzel et al.), so the concurrent explosion of both categories in the West doesn’t seem unnatural.

And some things are by nature depressing. So, despite its political incorrectness, my neglect of Oz lit. is relative. I do read voraciously; and a regular, if small, portion of my fiction diet is produced in Australia. For instance, if I receive copies of a journal or anthology as part (or whole) payment for my work, I devour all the fiction (+ poetry) they contain. And the sinking sensation I so often feel isn’t limited to local fiction. One way to avoid disappointment might be to stick with single author collections, but then I’d never discover new authors to love. But I digress…

It’s not the fault of most readers that they aren’t remotely aware of the debt a commercially published novel or short story owes its editor. These ghostly professionals don’t receive credit (as would, say, a translator) unless the author mentions them in the acknowledgements, with family and friends. As if the reality that an author might need extensive help to restructure a story full of gaps and/or redundant characters is none of the reader’s business (though the same reader watches TV/DVDs and knows from the credits that lots of shows are co-scripted). So my failure to sing the praises of antipodean fiction reflects, at least a little, on a shortage of editorial support. Too often, I’ve read novels by promising first-time Oz authors, only to come away with the aftertaste of ideas half-baked: an insubstantial or underdeveloped main character; a narrative thread veering off on an unintegrated tangent; a side-splitting set piece that upstages all subsequent scenes. My disappointment can go even deeper if the novel has won an award, yet contains trite plotting, bland descriptive padding, expository dialogue or just lots of typos. A stray apostrophe in ‘its’ (when possessive) seems to me akin to a shred of parsley wedged between someone’s teeth. And when is the etiquette governing how to respond ever discussed? I’d happily tell a friend, trusting they’d do as much for me. But what if it’s your publisher? Can you be sure they won’t feel insulted?

As boundaries between writers and publishers, like those between writers and readers, break down, who gets to be responsible for what? If my publisher introduces typos or layout errors into my text, why isn’t my feedback welcome, when my help in other ways is expected, especially with regard to sales and marketing? I mean, could I be forgiven for lacking enough conviction to circulate pics of me with parsley stuck in my teeth?

Fiction published in Oz comprises a minuscule portion of what the world offers. And a glance at the shelf that holds most of my admittedly small collection reminds me of how complacent, conformist, derivative and/or undeveloped it can be. If I have any responsibility to the local literary industry (which not only hasn’t supported me but doesn’t take the sort of risks that would inspire my support; and besides, books ordered online from overseas are much more affordable), then isn’t my duty as an Oz author to write the best fiction I can, inspired by reading the very best that’s available from around the planet?

One factor likely to lower the standard of short Oz fiction (or any writing) is the growing trend among boutique literary magazines to privilege submissions from subscribers. Of course it’s a double bind – no subscribers, no funds – but if you buy and read, then try to write for a narrow, predefined niche, don’t you risk cramping your style? Such a magazine has its own culture, image and politics to maintain. And the odds of one’s own culture, image and politics coinciding with that, at no cost to one’s originality, seem at best unlikely.

Still, Oz fiction can rival any in the world. Take Inland (1988) by Gerald Murnane. While usually read as a novel, this book, to quote JM Coetzee, ‘[lacks] many of the standard features of the novel: [it has] no plot worth speaking of, and only the most desultory narrative line; [its] personages have no names [actually, some do] and few individuating characteristics.’ Originality alone makes Inland worth the read. But it’s enchanting. I’ll leave you with a line from p. 36: ‘Some people have said that an eye is a window, but anyone who has looked carefully has seen that the eye is a mirror.’

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2 Responses to Why I don’t read (much) Australian fiction

  1. Mark Jarezz says:

    Yet another wonderful post. So true and so sad. I fear this dumbing down is not confined to literature alone in Oz. It seems everyone wants to be a celebrity even though they rarely possess any real talent at anything that might make them worthy of the celebrity they seek. It also seems very few have the time, patience or conviction to really learn their craft. With a bit of luck people will become so fed up with consuming the mediocre and will begin to seek out the work of those few who, in obscurity, continue to master their craft and innovate be it in literature or any of the arts in general. I love the graphic too…awesome!

    • Thanks for your kind and heartfelt words, Mark. The dumbing down you refer to, which I think afflicts, say, political debate as much as the arts, both in Oz and beyond, strikes me as part of the downside of digital culture. As for few having time to learn their craft, it seems to me that we’ve never been more subject to market forces, the scale and complexity and resultant demands on our time of which confound individual resistance. And as for people tiring of a mediocre diet, I tend to think most grow conditioned, even addicted, while only a few develop allergic reactions. Am I resigned to obscurity, then, and if so, is that defeatist? Perhaps. But if fellow invisibles can see one another, mightn’t invisibility have some advantages?

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