Characters who identify with their authors


A writer friend who’d offered to read my second draft of a short novel recently gave me the following marginal feedback: ‘I’m having a little trouble sifting fiction from reality. I assume that won’t be a problem for most of your readers.’ And: ‘I suppose that’s one way to relieve a little stress over [X’s] behaviour – slightly mind bending trying to separate your emails from your story!’

The emails to which my friend refers were written more than a year before the comparable bit in my story, so the source of stress had long since been addressed. Though I’d hoped for more constructive comments, wouldn’t it be good if his confusion were due to my having achieved a seamless interweaving of what I’ve observed or experienced with what I could only imagine? But if he cared to read any contemporary literary fiction – or, like many writers pushed for time, a range of current reviews – he’d soon discover lots of writers borrow freely from their biographies. As Helen Elliott tells us, in her review of the novel Fever of Animals, ‘Portrait of the writer as an artist in search of himself’ (Spectrum SMH, 5 Sept 2015):

When Rachel Cusk, best-known for her unadorned autobiographical fiction, was interviewed last year about her new book she explained that making up characters was “fake and embarrassing”. She went on: “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

In an age of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, her words ring with truth. And this truth, about not making up things that are fake or embarrassing, is what gives authority to the voice of Miles Allinson. His central character is also called Miles and he shares a lot with the actual author.

Elliott could as well have said, ‘In an age of selfies…’ But Allinson is, as she indicates, following a trend, acclaimed examples of which include The Spare Room (2008) by Helen Garner, Summertime (2009) by J.M. Coetzee, and 10:04 (2014) by Ben Lerner. And my writer friend’s innocence of this trend adds to the irony that his own history, home environment, personal traits and significant relationships provide backstory, setting, style of narration and main characters in his latest thriller.

So, did I likewise have ‘trouble sifting fiction from reality’ when he asked me for feedback on multiple drafts? I don’t think so. It took no effort to tell or guess the difference. But that’s not what makes fiction – or nonfiction – interesting. After all, every story entails fabrication, because memory progressively rewrites history over time (with the help of an editing function Freudians call repression).

Obviously, some novels include more ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ than do others, while much nonfiction contains invented dialogue; and obviously, suppression of certain, often intriguing, facts is standard practice: to lower the risk of legal action. But the artificial distinction serves, above all, the purpose of marketing, so critics and even authors continue to think in terms of compartments. For, what is a compartment but a means of separating one type of person, place or thing from another (ally from antagonist; emails from a story; memoir from fantasy) for the sake of expedience, privacy or sanity?

Novelist Siri Hustvedt has astutely observed that sexism often underlies assumptions that her fiction is based on her life. (In contrast, her husband has had to deal with assumptions that even his memoirs are made up.) ‘The man is so clever everything is a kind of Derridean deconstruction and everything a woman writes is confessional?’ Hustvedt once said. And women, not just men, make that mistake; it’s natural enough. But other friends haven’t found my use of (modified) real-life facts distracting – unless they’ve recognised, rightly or wrongly, a character based on themselves. One friend – informed in advance that she’d inspired a (benevolent) character – complained that my portrayal of facts was inaccurate. Maybe her own desire to write a memoir had warped her perspective?

Would that friend, who took her own life before she managed to write about it, have felt encouraged if she’d known just how much the nonfiction market would grow? I doubt it – she’d made no concessions to trends as a brilliant, original artist. Be warned: attempting to write an authentic memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Meanwhile, as the line dividing autobiography from fiction gets blurrier (paralleling the line between the real and the virtual?), the boundary between novelistic and essay forms – strictest in genre fiction – is breaking down. According to Anna Hedigan, in her essay on true crime, ‘The Mechanics of Justice’ (Australian Author, Dec 2015): ‘The novel’s had a bit of a crisis lately. It’s arguably been displaced by non-fiction as the most prestigious form of writing.’ (Prestige, I’m guessing she means, as demonstrated by sales figures?)

The destabilising shock that 9/11 dealt the West has been cited as a major factor in nonfiction’s rapid rise. But of course it’s far more complex than that. There’ve never been so many humans inhabiting this planet, all of whom must increasingly compete for dwindling resources, while digital corporate surveillance reduces each individual to a statistic, his or her psychology to a formula. Meanwhile, more and more poor misguided souls want to be authors. Why wouldn’t these hordes seek to deny or resist the signs of their waning significance by re-imagining their unfulfilled lives as a hero’s (or heroine’s) journey? And for those loath to retreat into cosy egocentric fantasy, maybe our culture’s growing insulation from wild nature, extreme weather, poverty, ageing, death etc., incites us to engage with what feels real and immediate, however unromantic?

According to novelist Brian Castro, in his essay ‘Forgetting Paris’ (Australian Author, Aug 2003), ‘the French fortunately don’t have those false and infantilised categories of fiction and non-fiction’. The context is Castro’s account of being in ‘a place where ideas seemed to matter’ (a reference to French culture, not just the whole floor of books in an emporium where he’d sought warmth). Later in the essay, he writes:

Indeed, the novel sets itself apart by its uselessness. […] It is hopelessly irrelevant. If it is complex, it is unlikely to be noticed. But the novel may well provide a circularity to the moronic linearity of life.

Am I a writer who dreamed of being a character or a character dreaming that I’m a writer? The answer might depend on whether I write to escape or embrace real life.

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Google-gaga: the changing language of spiritual experience


At a recent poetry gig, I raved to an ageing poet about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an example of prose that’s more poetic than much current poetry. ‘Reading it is a spiritual experience,’ I said without irony – probably naïve of me in an academic environment. Yet I had no conscious desire to provoke her.

‘I have a problem with the word “spiritual”,’ she said.

My eyebrows rose in polite enquiry. She objected to the word’s ‘new-age’ connotations. Imagination means the same thing, she said. Not necessarily, I said, then clarified that I’d meant transcendent rather than religious.

Trans just means across,’ she said with obvious impatience.

Trans also means above,’ said the poet sitting between us.

Indeed. For me, McCarthy lends an exalted perspective to post-apocalyptic darkness – his biblical diction, stark imagery and mesmerising rhythms inducing a meditative state in which I can read undistracted in noisy, crowded places.

In a hearteningly radical work, What is Madness? (2011), psychoanalyst Darian Leader compares psychosis with neurosis: ‘The absence of doubt is the single clearest indicator of the presence of psychosis (p. 116).’ So someone with total – psychotic – conviction regarding some truly bizarre beliefs might still have the sense to keep them secret for fear of sounding crazy. As Leader explains:

Neurotic people, prone to doubt, are often impressed when they meet someone who seems sure of him or herself, convinced of their beliefs. This is why sects, cults and religious movements so often form around charismatic individuals who seem certain of their purpose in life (p. 118).

This kind of certainty is synonymous with faith. And Leader’s not the first theorist to note that questions of meaning feature in schizophrenia. As science or, more precisely, modern medicine has taken over the role religion once played in moderating society’s anxiety re mortality, the signs of a spiritual calling (visions, voices, speaking in tongues) have been pathologised – demonised, in a way. What once passed for angelic or demonic visitation has been localised, narrowed down to wonky brain chemistry. Divine inspiration, for the would-be ‘creative’ (creator), can be replicated through modelling of geniuses’ behaviours. No longer created or programmed by ‘God’, we’ve become our own makers, agents and sellers. Not content to depend, either, on artificial (external) intelligence, we can’t wait to incorporate its technology into our bodies – to negate the inner space that once enabled mystical states.

Reporting on biohacking, Gillian Terzis, who works in ‘an industry characterised by diminishing horizons – journalism’, reports that

Grinders make themselves the subject of scientific enquiry, hoping to elevate the human condition, override the limitations of their physiology, or augment their sensory perception through technology. An array of mild superpowers awaits the aspirational cyborg: people are already implanting magnets into their fingers to feel the push and pull of forcefields.

Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow, rising star of the biohacking firmament and co-founder of Oz’s first grassroots DIY science lab, tells Terzis he’s considering offering Sydney’s BioFoundry members lab access via a chip embedded in their hand ‘because it’s fucking cool’:

It’s good to be an early adopter and say, ‘I’m putting my body on the line and doing something cool and challenging.’ Even though it’s no more impressive than wearing a bracelet, it shows where things might go.

The mind boggles at such logic. Let’s hope Terzis has taken his quote out of context. Still, isn’t the merging of machine with flesh just a clumsily literal bid for transcendence?

A reporter on cutting-edge technology for decades, journalist and author John Markoff says the next global computing platform to come after the smartphone will be some form of ‘augmented reality’, with companies racing to develop

technology that causes the mouse to disappear, the keyboard to disappear, the smart phone disappear. You will interact with the computing resources that are all around you in the Cloud and wherever else by just speaking and looking through your glasses.

That should leave less room for doubt – and independent thought. We’re headed for a virtual womb. How fucking cool is that? According to Hegel (1770–1831), we can think and understand only in language: ‘It is in names that we think’. (Not unlike computers?) And now, more and more, we think in brand names: e.g., ‘google’ is a verb, a ‘doing word’ that’s used with increasing frequency (and sounds disturbingly like the nonsense words adults burble at babies). But what’s a verb for ‘spirituality’?

To paint might fit – in the case of what’s looking like an endangered breed of artist. In the ravishing monograph Roy Jackson: Hands On (2015), art critic Terence Maloon writes of the late great painter, ‘For Jackson, as for Tuckson, commitment to art was an all-consuming spiritual discipline (p. 23).’ It’s good to know that not all artists and critics have lost sight of where mark-making came from; haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Re discipline, Maloon quotes Simon Leys (The Hall of Uselessness, p. 298):

Through the ages, in the East as in the West, the great mystics who achieved complete obliteration of the self were also the most forceful and original personalities. In the art of calligraphy, as in spiritual life itself, when self-denial is complete, self-expression reaches its plenitude.

How much scope remains for such an approach to art (or poetry) today? If I might take the liberty of messing with Leys’s equation: In the virtual world, as in reality itself, when self-obsession is complete, self-expression reaches its nadir.

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Use It or Lose It: the intelligence that ‘difficult’ reading develops


My favourite event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘A Radical Rethink’, a discussion between three doctors: Karen Hitchcock, Norman Doidge and Ranjana Srivastaya. ‘Can we change our brains?’ asks the blurb. ‘How can we retain quality of life into old age?’ The discussion soon polarised, Srivastaya playing devil’s advocate and Doidge and Hitchcock, the radicals, challenging mindless assumptions.

In her superb Quarterly Essay 57, Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly, Hitchcock says (re the threat of the ‘grey tsunami’, a term often applied to baby boomers):

The real tsunami is not one of age per se, but of a population of increasingly poor, obese, diabetic, sedentary young and middle-aged who are the multi-morbid patients of the future and who will require many drugs, doctors, operations […] and hospitalisations (p. 30).

Taken out of context, this sounds as if our challenge is to deal with physical decay. But: ‘About a quarter of Australians over the age of eighty-five now live in care facilities. Dementia is the reason half of them have been institutionalised (p. 54).’

In his essay ‘Why Google is a Political Matter’ (Monthly, June 2015), John Keane says Julian Assange ‘understandably rejects the pre-political flavour of grandiose claims about the end of narrative intelligence.’ Dismissive of charges that Google (the net) is spreading ‘digital dementia’, Assange says ‘there’s something else going on’ and ‘we should pay attention to its novelty’.

Fair enough. Isn’t our collective docility less Google’s doing than its opportunity? If Google is truly making us stupid, TV paved the way, and before it, the information technology TV superseded: radio. Plenty of folk whose TV or radio drones all day will never progress to the mental effort of asking a search engine questions; though, as Assange says, Google is much more than that: ‘a type of private National Security Agency’, because ‘digital automation is inherently coupled with the efficiencies of integrated centralisation and control’. Why wouldn’t intelligent citizens seek to resist mass control? But hey, don’t get me started on history.

Right now, the incidence of dementia (Latin for madness) is on the rise. And so is human longevity everywhere. Hmm… Is dementia inevitable, given enough time? But depression, too, is on the rise, and much of it’s not age-related (try googling age-specific suicide rates). Yet, it can be. For example…

A healthy 93-year-old woman’s memory is deteriorating. She might recall the name of an acquaintance not seen for 70 years at the mere mention of a 21st birthday party, yet forget a phone conversation that occurred just hours earlier – or score 100% on a standard cognitive test, satisfying her GP that she’s free of dementia, while the GP’s receptionist calls a locksmith: the woman has left her house keys at home. A widow, she lives alone; has done for over a decade. Yet all her husband’s effects remain undisturbed – she doesn’t like change. Since his death she’s refused to learn anything new, shuns mobile phones and computers, and suffers depression and anxiety. Her friends and relatives have dwindled and she lacks any urge to seek new friends. Loneliness intensifies her depression, and vice versa. Too much of her social contact is reduced to transactions with relative strangers, purveyors of goods and services, not all of them scrupulous. Fat cheques get written yet receipts elude her.

Dementia, all who hear this story mutter, nodding. Alzheimer’s. Everyone’s an expert, often at firsthand. Power of Attorney, they say. Guardianship. Carer. Nursing home. But where’s the dividing line between forgetfulness and disease? Memories of times in her youth when she felt pleasure fill this woman’s mind before she falls asleep at night. But over the last decade – more, counting the years she nursed her dying spouse – she’s known only loss: the deaths of her contemporaries; failing sight, hearing and strength; the decline of optimism and confidence. Meanwhile, the civilised world has gone digital. The actual social fabric, not just the social contract, has changed.

Younger generations have adapted, as we do, but our society has never been more ageist – an attitude that militates against awareness of history. And the loss of a historical frame of reference promotes ageism. If we can no longer be bothered to flex the muscles of memory, since it’s quicker to access facts and records via Google, why should we value slow-moving folk who could tell us how the world once was? What use are these living fossils if technology can meet all our needs: quickly and cleanly, without scary previews of our own obsolescence?

And the digital revolution is bringing obsolescence in other ways. Take traditional publishing: it’s a dinosaur in our DIY culture. Last month, an aspiring author pushing seventy sent me the link to his blog. I scrolled down it, idly clicking on the rare comments. One post had attracted a record of three, but the first was just spam (from Free Google Adwords, incidentally). What blogger hasn’t seen its ilk? ‘Pretty nice post […] and I’m hoping you write once more very soon.’ Instead of trashing or marking it ‘spam’, though, this naïf had replied. Some wannabes can’t resist a compliment, however robotic – not Google’s fault. But like all parasites, it’s adapted to colonise the gaps: physical or mental space uninhabited by awareness. Could this be humanity’s fatal flaw – our increasing vacancy? Because addiction to entertainment is mainly, if not only, what too much fiction feeds. If the plot is complex enough – say, a convoluted whodunit – it exercises the reader’s brain, not unlike a cryptic crossword. But most popular fantasy and romance infantilises readers, recycling tropes imprinted in childhood.

To dement means to ‘deprive of mind’; to drive one out of one’s mind, to make mindless. Emptied of contents. Discontented. That’s how the madness gets in. Do someone’s thinking for them and they don’t need to think for themselves. Puree their food for thought and they needn’t chew it. Spoon-feed the consumer. Smartphones etc. don’t make us smart any more than Google makes us stupid. The smart folk might be those corporate tools (including many best-selling authors) busy devising thrills and apps that keep the hordes distracted. The more ‘choices’ we believe we have, the more we conform to market logic. In our increasingly atomised society – nuclear families make better consumers – we’ve grown so attached to the notion of our individuality that we can’t see how uniformly predictable we’re becoming as corporate interests use us.

As one of Haruki Murakami’s characters says: ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

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Writing from the margins

Dr C. Urchin

In his primer Astrologik (Vertical Pool, 1999), underground filmmaker and overall maverick Antero Alli argues against legitimising astrology. But not for the reasons you might expect. Astrology happens to be his profession. So it’s his peers who want to look more respectable, set a few standards. What could be wrong with that?

Let’s forget for a second that this is about astrology – a discipline dismissed by most ‘educated’ atheists, as if they’ve confused what they call belief in astrology with belief in God. (Religion’s age-old antagonism towards astrology seems to escape them.) The standard objection is that it’s unscientific.

Why, then, do I mention it? Well, Alli’s main concern is honesty. That his context is astrology is, for my purposes here, incidental. (Though if the topic interests you, I heartily recommend him.) The thing is, we live in a society (we in the West, an increasingly abstract location thanks to globalisation) where the truth (unlike crime on a corporate scale) doesn’t pay. And with the times a-changin’ – faster than when Alli made his case sixteen years ago – I dare say astrologers aren’t feeling any more secure.

But whether they crave more status, money, or just a more regular income, security symbolised in externals – assets, insurance – is illusory. And the more invested we are in illusions, the weaker our grasp of the truth. I use the word truth (so loaded, and much abused) somewhat loosely, to connote such qualities as emotional honesty. Not an absolute, Truth with a capital T, but openness to the moment in the opposite sense of opportunism – openness that admits immediacy, vulnerability and authenticity vs. repression, defensiveness and hidden terms and conditions; openness that dispenses with political correctness. My point is, Alli’s perspective applies not just to the art of astrology but to the arts and, in particular, literature. What happens, for example, when creative writing course graduates colonise the literary scene? Is this conducive to originality?

Most publishers and politicians aren’t so different at heart. Aiming to appeal to the mainstream, they follow sales rankings or polling, put fashion before quality or fishermen before sustainability – because our cultural climate has parallels in what’s left of the natural environment. Fail to protect the fish and rock lobsters that eat spiny sea urchins and the little critters overbreed – until swimmers have to be careful of where they put their feet. And in Oz, it’s getting that way with PhDs; they’re clustered wherever you look in the literary sea, bristling with scholarly research, comforting bourgeois values and PC morality. What could possibly be wrong with that?

There’s such a thing, though Alli doesn’t spell it out, as diversity – part of the logic of, say, setting up marine reserves (opposed by a government that cuts welfare and pays big polluters). If astrologers all become qualified – like the new breed of Oz author, who writes for similarly qualified readers (such as uni tutors), it’s a self-perpetuating loop – they end up catering only to clients who largely resemble themselves. And what’s lost is, for starters, perspective.

In Alli’s words:

What is meant by ‘oracular’ refers to the ageless archetype of the muse, a mythical and sometimes human figure who speaks and acts truthfully without any regard or consideration for social, economic or political consequences. For good reasons, a muse maintains a sociological posture at the fringe of any village or hub of mainstream values: the sage, the shaman, the witch, the crone.

If that archetype truly is ageless, it must have suffered an eclipse at this late stage in our present age of capitalism. Show me a consultant who can afford to tell the truth without any regard for the consequences. Tact is required if you rely on word of mouse to attract business. But I’m letting myself get distracted – Alli’s identifying an ideal, not an individual. He’s also defining the kind of astrology he practises. Perhaps he sounds slightly unschooled – like some sort of outsider? Hmm… I never used to think thoughts like that before I went to uni. Instead, I used to notice when people sounded pretentious and/or academic. Sometimes I still do. Which reminds me…

One of Astrologik’s reviewers, while also an admirer of Alli’s ‘creative and original writing’, frowns on his calling astrology a language: ‘Start with what linguists believe constitutes a language and then apply those criteria to astrology. Except he won’t, because astrology would fail to meet the criteria…’

Huh? A language isn’t defined only by what linguists believe. (And if mere belief underlies their criteria, what sets linguistics apart from religion?) Personally, I’m OK with the dictionary definition of ‘language’. Oh, wait – my dictionary offers more than one definition. Hmm – maybe that’s true of the field of linguistics, too. What would I know about language, though? I’m too busy using it; because, hey, for language to work – to make sense – takes practice, not just formal education. Yet, this confused-sounding reviewer objects to Alli’s illogicality:

Another primary flaw in hsi [sic] reasoning comes from his inconsistency between his statement that astrology is NOT a science, and therefore not subject to normal verification processes of science, and yet he uses it to make predictions.

So now I need a science degree to make valid guesses concerning the future? (Whatever happened to life experience?) That’s like saying the territory can’t exist without the map. (And don’t get me started on this amateur critic’s grammar.) It reminds me of a line from another of Alli’s books, Letters, Essays & Premonitions (Vigilantero Press, 1993): ‘I don’t believe in astrology but it works and that’s why I use it.’

And that reminds me of a well-known line from Jeanette Winterson’s second novel, The Passion (Bloomsbury, 1987): ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’

Maybe she’s not the best example: a graduate of Oxford? But I think she’s kept the outsider perspective that stems from her hard-up working-class origins. And she didn’t stick around to do a doctorate.

As Alli’s reviewer demonstrates, it’s not rocket science, learning to keep your mind closed. But groundbreaking art and ideas tend to come from minds independent enough to stay open.

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Reading Between the Lines, or A Scanner Darkly


A sign beside the receptionist’s desk in an eye clinic reads:

Pensioners will be bulk-billed for any consultations only.

While waiting for my first appointment there, I asked the receptionist what the sign meant. Did bulk-billing apply only to consultations and not to extra procedures (like scans)? The receptionist said that, yes, pensioners would be bulk-billed – an imprecise answer. I tried rewording my question. She repeated herself. I tried again. She got crosser. ‘It’s a grammar problem,’ I finally said, and she glanced at me irritably. Presumably no other patients had found the syntax ambiguous.

Clear sight is prized in our society, so eye surgeons command fat fees. But clear communication is relatively worthless, with ever more writers working for free. What’s wrong with my eyesight? Well, most people who read a great deal – i.e., most people, in an ‘information society’ – will at some point find that misuse, such as constant reading, weakens the eyes. And most of us will then resort to glasses, contacts or laser surgery; the more serious the problem, the more advanced the technology. Few of us question this downhill progression, though worsening eyesight makes us dependent – initially on the judgement of narrowly focused experts.

My doctor recently sent me to an ophthalmologist because I said that writing (not reading) had been giving me headaches. And when I returned, alarmed, to ask her for another referral, she gave me a copy of the letter she’d received from the specialist. An abridged version follows:

Dear _____,

Thank you very much for your referral on _____. She has noticed some decrease in her night vision which is due to slight decrease in her accommodative strength. She does not have any cataract but I have advised her some pencil push up exercises and convergence exercises and that just might help her with her focusing slightly. […] Eventually she will most likely need some reading glasses and when the cataract develops she will need to have that removed.

At this stage she does not have a cataract so I will just get her to do the exercises initially.

I also noticed some very early optic nerve changes suggestive of very early glaucoma in the left eye […] and she needs some monitoring of that at this stage […] In the initial phase, there is nothing serious happening with her eyes which is good to know.

Kind Regards,

Dr _____ _______
_____, PhD (Cataract), _______ (____).

My first point of concern was his error re night vision. I’d mentioned doubling of images, more obvious at night (with the contrast of bright light against blackness), but it would appear he didn’t listen – due to some decrease in his hearing? Secondly, why three references to cataracts, though my eyes show no signs of any? What’s behind this premature fixation, this unbalanced bias? A PhD thesis, apparently – note his assumptions that (1) I’ll get cataracts, certain as death and taxes, and (2) I’ll bow to his authority and come back.

Why wouldn’t I? Well, he talked too fast for me to keep up in the 15 or so minutes he spared me, and never once mentioned my main symptom: headaches. But I wasted almost two hours in the waiting room. His practice hinged on a $100,000 scanner operated by an abstracted assistant fresh out of uni, with an irrelevant degree in molecular biology and the social skills of a robot. (She: ‘Have I given you drops yet?’ Me: ‘Not that I’ve noticed…’)

On the strength of one scan – he discarded two others after a minute’s scrutiny – the specialist diagnosed early glaucoma in my left eye and urged me to return in six weeks for monitoring – glaucoma can cause tunnel vision and eventual blindness. According to his handout explaining the need for regular scans, glaucoma ‘steals sight’: emotive language, that. My GP deleted him from her database when I described his style. (She used the word ‘factory’.)

Finally, in his letter to her, my condition sounds less serious. Did he hope to elicit my patronage through fear? Yet, why pay heaps for scans that only show whether I need invasive treatments, subject to interpretation by someone with dollar signs in his eyes, who doesn’t know what’s caused my ‘disease’, much less what I can do on my own to reverse, halt or even just slow its progress? (According to The Glaucoma Foundation, ‘[Imaging] software and technology are developing rapidly and show great promise. However, they have not yet evolved to replace ophthalmoscopy, where the doctor looks directly at the optic nerve.’) Such faith in an unproven machine mirrors publishers’ haste to churn out e-books. Hello, statistics. Goodbye, editing.

And so, two months later I sought a second opinion from someone more experienced, who pronounced my optic nerves healthy and my eye pressure normal. However, I needed reading glasses immediately. I voiced ambivalence. Oops. He grew fiercely insistent, scorning the idea of natural vision improvement and calling the famous if scientifically dubious Bates method ‘dangerous’. Why so defensive? Don’t most of us lack the discipline, patience and/or interest to explore the subtle complexities of our own eye–brain and eye–body connections? Clearly, there’s more than one kind of tunnel vision.

These ophthalmologists, for all their knowledge re what’s anatomically possible, don’t seem to be up to speed with current research suggesting that natural vision improvement works via the brain rather than the eyes. Which might account for the lack of scientifically documented successes pertaining to countless reports of eyesight improving through active and mindful use (vs. passive dependence on external lenses). The second expert I saw would, I’m sure, view such testifiers as deluded.

If he and his kind were books, they’d be the equivalent of traditional genre fiction: ubiquitously popular (even if mediocre, like the first expert); conducive, like most quick fixes, to habitual mental laziness; and above all, reassuringly predictable. As an aficionado of literary fiction, I’ll be seeking a third opinion.

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Why it’s getting harder to be original

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf

Language is a treacherous beast. Sometimes it’s not easy to say what you mean. One word can be a synonym for a whole string of others that serve to signify quite different things. Similar mutability in an individual could attract a diagnosis of, say, dissociative identity disorder, the psychiatric term for hosting multiple personalities. The user of any such versatile word must forget, for the moment, its other roles. Dissociate it from its history. Let the context speak for it. And so, when I titled this post, ‘original’ didn’t strike me as ambiguous – until I read some definitions.

According to my Macquarie Dictionary (2009), a colloquial meaning of ‘original’ is ‘mentally ill; insane’. Ergo, when I look it up in my Macquarie Thesaurus (2007), I find, under the heading ‘PSYCHE’, a long list of synonyms including ‘certifiable’, ‘demented’, ‘non compos’, ‘queer’ (!) and ‘wrong in the head’. However, a different set of synonyms (under ‘ACTUALITY’) includes ‘factual’, ‘objective’, ‘positive’, ‘real-life’ and ‘true’. Meanwhile, the usage I had in mind (under ‘CREATION’) fits with ‘groundbreaking’, ‘imaginative’, ‘ingenious’, ‘innovative’ and ‘inventive’. The word as an adjective also appears under ‘NEWNESS’ and ‘OLDNESS’. That anyone speaking English can be understood at all is a miracle.

Yet words, like behaviours, rely on their context for apt interpretation, just as one gesture can mean different things in different cultures (or subcultures). Context (like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind) is king. Psychiatrist RD Laing applied this perspective in his field, i.e., nurture more than nature accounts for schizophrenia. But the biological bias has eclipsed his groundbreaking insights in our myopic, pill-popping times, even though science has now caught up with his observations, and tells us our brains can shape-shift in response to our environment. For instance, studies show that the brains of internet addicts are shrinking.

Comparing disparate theories of schizophrenia in his PhD thesis, ‘Schismatic Mind’ (2000), Richard Gosden, an independent researcher, critiques government-supported pre-psychotic detection and pre-emption measures. Promoted as preventive medicine, these programs hinge on drug-based intervention, being driven – surprise! – by funding and lobbying geared to grow Big Pharma’s market, trialling meds in Oz before launching high-stakes campaigns in the US and Europe. Among other likely interpretations, Gosden cites ‘an unnecessary expansion of social control’ and ‘a threat to human diversity through the enforcement of hyper-normality’. His work hasn’t reached enough people, from what I can see, 15 years on, searching the Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centre website. And EPPIC’s founder’s critics, for all their cred and good sense, are vastly outnumbered.

Meanwhile, expansion of social control is speeding up, due to our digital networks’ conduciveness to government surveillance, combined with the addictiveness of social media, online games etc., which – not unlike psych drugs – produce ‘affective blunting’ in habitual users. Who needs shrinks prescribing meds to subdue wayward teens when technology can achieve a broader reach?

The net’s early enthusiasts envisioned it as a boon enabling a revolution in social equality, not as a ubiquitous tool for enforcing conformity. They failed to foresee that corporate giants would put paid to a level playing field. The rise of pseudo-Darwinist atheism at the expense of ‘Christian’ compassion favours an ethos of competition: survival of the fittest, triumph of the will, may the best man win. But neither Amazon nor Google stands for equal opportunity.

Social equality has meaning to the extent that it fosters diversity. Uniformity, which on the surface might look like equality (one argument for making school kids wear uniforms) too often signifies a state of subjection to higher authorities, the opposite of personal autonomy. The old idea that we are what we eat could apply to all we consume (or read): stuff that industrialisation has made increasingly mass-produced. As we overpopulate Earth, overeating, displacing and poisoning other species (e.g., the bees that pollinate our trees), and our diet, despite mass-marketing’s lies, decreases in variety (due to depleted resources, factory farming, unwholesome fast foods etc.), how can we hope to do more than rehash and remix the stored record of thought that assaults us from every digital platform and ad space; an undigested, atemporal chunder of high and low culture, all jumbled up? No wonder we can’t even agree that global warming is real, let alone work together to deal with its effects.

Manufacturing (now on the wane in Oz) has produced endless repetition (and landfill). But why limit boring expedience to metal, plastic, asbestos etc. when living cells can be cloned in progressively more complex forms? As humans voluntarily become more mechanical and science strives to humanise robots and AI, who’ll win the race to achieve a seamless fusion of man and machine? Technology has enabled more people than ever before to be creative, providing tools and tutes that make creativity seem easy. But the rise of individualism, with its demand for convenience, has a lot of blandness to answer for.

Because a colour-by-numbers embrace of creative expression as entertainment doesn’t tend to produce originality, which our comfort-craving culture has devalued – hence the ‘myth’ (read: archetype) of the suffering artist has gone out of fashion. Yet transcendence can’t happen without surrender, commitment and sacrifice. That’s not just a Christian myth – it’s a practical reality. Originality isn’t a choice (choc chip? mango? berry?) but an inner imperative, a quirk of nature or destiny; and can, like behaviours displayed by the so-called mentally ill, elicit rejection. The wider the range of available options, the narrower most people’s tastes, it seems – how else to explain the ubiquity of Starbucks, McDonalds etc., the ultimate in replication of the familiar? Or their literary equivalents, genre fiction churned out in relentless series, with heroes always solving crimes and heroines catching Mr Rights? How many versions of the same story can one person read before cliché embalms their thinking and feeling functions?

Whether you think original means radical – going back to the root – or inspired – striking like lightning – it’s suggestive of verticality. Digital culture, in contrast, hits us horizontally. Ideas spread sideways like viruses in crowds, morphing yet derivative like Chinese whispers. It’s a trend reconfiguring, among other things, music, art and literature – each remake getting a little more blurred, diluted, homogenised, in transmission. And so, I find myself turning back to the classics, hungry for distinctive voices like Woolf’s, Joyce’s, Kafka’s – the work of artists driven by visions bordering on ‘madness’ – in my search for relief from a culture where sanitisation gets mistaken for sanity.

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Seasoned Thinking – Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014


LYNNE SEGAL: THE MARCH OF TIME May 23, 11.30am–12.30pm (‘Social activist, feminist, author and academic Lynne Segal turns her formidable gaze towards the thorny issue of aging. She discusses her new book Out of Time, which has garnered widespread acclaim.’)

Not having heard of Lynne Segal, I came only because I’d just read an in-depth review of her book by Brit author and critic Jenny Diski, whom too few Oz readers have heard of; she deserves wider recognition. This audience, even more than most at SWF, comprised female baby boomers, packing the space to capacity.

Topics included how women, conspicuously more than men, are aged by culture. Out of Time enthused publishers less than Segal’s previous books: ‘they think people don’t want to hear about old age’. Having observed that ‘baby boomers is almost a poisonous word now’, Segal noted a contradiction: we’re living longer but aren’t able to value late life. Yet, from early on, ‘women have internalised the sense of having ugly bodies’.

After the session, in the Portaloo queue behind me, two boomers were debating what men their age like. Big breasts, said one. The other, who had a modest bust, disputed this, citing the ’60s ideal of beauty (which I’d guess she once embodied), and railed at how many women today look like bimbos. ‘That’s because of pornography,’ I chipped in. And as I peed I could hear them, still disagreeing, from their cubicles. The petite woman denied that her partner uses porn; her friend assured her all men do, they just don’t admit it. Isn’t that a sexist view? Some men I know find porn, bimbos and even big breasts a turn-off; just as big penises don’t interest some women.

Homeward bound via a department store, I was startled to see, above a display: ‘Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Franz Kafka

Who’d have thought that Kafka could be used to sell exfoliants? Unable to link this quote with the potions below it, I searched the relevant website, and found a reading list, then an interview with Orhan Pamuk, neither of which would inspire me to buy anything but books. So this juxtaposition of treats for both mind and skin is lost on me. Yet I’d guess it lures a few affluent readers to the brand. At least these costly products aren’t tested on animals.

Which reminds me: the extent to which monetisation before compassion defines our society ought to suggest that feminism is less passé (as some whine) than fledgling. Recently, a 70-something woman I know, who speaks a few languages and whose command of English is outstanding, expressed dismay – in relation to the Abbott government’s budget – at an issue also raised in Diski’s review: ‘the neoliberal notion that the old are demanding welfare and medical aid which the young have to pay for’. To translate: how dare she take up space – a freedom that, incidentally, women more than men are denied all their lives, if even more so as they age. Yet, this 70-something woman’s sharp mind is a rare repository of knowledge – which today’s society is forgetting how to prize, as linguistic diversity succumbs to globalised culture, and even the dominant tongue, English, is losing nuance and subtlety.

ALEXIS WRIGHT: THE SWAN BOOK May 24, 1.30–2.30pm (‘Miles Franklin Award winner Alexis Wright speaks to Geordie Williamson about The Swan Book, her new novel in which energy, humour, myth, legend and fairytale come together to create a book of startling originality.’)

The burning topic of climate change was under-represented, to say the least, at this year’s festival. So it surprised me that Alexis Wright, whose provocative latest novel is set in a catastrophic future, drew a smaller crowd than Segal. Obviously, women (and men) dread ageing. Yet whether we’ll all get the chance depends to some extent on how fast global warming transforms our planet. Should I survive long enough, the quality of my ‘late life’ will be subject to pressures presented by drought, flood and other effects of extreme weather – such as food and water shortages, mass migration/extinctions, epidemics etc.

While only halfway through The Swan Book, I’m struck by its scant treatment of technology: no impressive advances or regressive nostalgia. Wright’s concerned with our impact on the Earth, not the means by which we dissociate from it; cares about living, breathing beings, not the potentials of machines. Using a fictive future to critique Oz politics now, Wright explores the idea of Aboriginal self-government. As she said, it’s ‘a conversation we’ve never been able to have in this country’.

Geordie Williamson asked her if The Swan Book is ‘magical realism’. She told him that’s an old-fashioned term. Indeed. How are two vastly disparate cultures supposed to agree on what ‘realism’ means? Jane Gleeson-White spells it out:

For this apparent blend of real and fantastic, Wright’s novels have been described by some critics as magic realism. But not only does this Western literary critical construct serve to reduce the Indigenous to ‘magic’ while maintaining the settler view as the measure of ‘reality’, it also fails to account for the complex reality of the world that Wright endeavours to bring to fiction. Her novels’ hybridity, their challenging of form and style, their foregrounding of nature – or Country – and the agency with which they endow the non-human world are part of a deliberate strategy on Wright’s part to embody in a Western literary form a contemporary Aboriginal cosmology in its entirety – with serious political intent and real world implications. Wright herself vouches for this reading of the multiple realities in her fiction: ‘The world I try to inhabit in my writing is like looking at the ancestral tracks spanning our traditional country which, if I look at the land, combines all stories, all realities from the ancient to the new, and makes it one – like all the strands on a long rope.’

More than one online review of Wright’s novels I read refers to ‘hard work’. Well, why not? Writing The Swan Book took Wright 10 years, and she’s clearly au fait with white literature. Open-minded readers have found The Swan Book wildly original. Charlotte Wood reports being ‘thrilled’ by ‘its almost anti-narrative stance’. Williamson concludes his own review with:

For all its confusions and longueurs, its cynicism and bitterness, The Swan Book should be regarded as one of the most beautiful, furious and urgent novels to be published in this country in recent years. It reminds readers that the misery and upheaval promised by climate change has already come to Australia’s first people. Their exile is not a story from our distant past, in other words, but a harbinger of our collective future.

Then there are those who complain because Wright breaks the rules of whitefella narration. Says Caroline Baum: ‘I got brief glimpses of brilliance […]. But in the end the book defeated me.’ And ‘Its premise is terrific […] but the style is dense, repetitive and intimidating.’ And ‘I know this is an important book by a major talent […]. But it’s not an easy read, and its mockery is at times off-puttingly harsh, leaving this reader feeling slightly battered and unwelcome.’

Is the qualifier of ‘slightly’ a concession to political correctness? But then ‘battered’ is such a strong word. Can someone feel ‘slightly abused’? Maybe Baum felt duty-bound to level with readers whom she knows would find the book heavy going; Wright doesn’t make concessions to pop fiction conventions.

So why should – or might – any of us want to embrace ‘difficult’ writing? Ease can mean comfort, complacency; that which feels familiar, safe. And some books serve little or no purpose beyond diversion from a harsh world. But often our attitudes re what’s good, or just valid, hinge on habit. And some habits can prove unhealthy, if not downright destructive.

By shunning difficulty, we shelter ourselves from otherness, whether among or beyond our own species, closing both our hearts and our minds; so along with losing empathy for all sentient life we grow mentally, morally lazy and cede ever more of our will to hi-tech corporations.

WRITING BODIES May 24, 4.30–5.30pm (‘Some of the most memorable writing is fleshy – with skin, blood and orgasm. And writers too are bodies: who swim, jog, box and meditate. Damon Young, Irvine Welsh and Tara Moss explore bodies in fiction and philosophy with Lawrence Hill.’)

While queuing for this session, I watched hundreds of festival-goers walk past, and noted their posture, especially if they wore glasses. I’d just read Eyebody, a book on ‘the art of integrating eye, brain and body’, according to which:

In modern society the frontal lobes tend to dominate. […] The way we live has become increasingly disconnected — from our selves, what we really want in life and what we are able to envision in the future. The decisions we in modern society are making … are generally short-sighted — an overall vision is lacking.

And glasses (or contacts) compound the problem:

… refractive lenses are cut in such a way that […] we are using only 5% of the photoreceptors actively and 95% lie dormant. The rest of the retina is under-stimulated […]. A large portion of our brain is being starved of information and stimulation.

Why do I mention this? It’s a workable analogy: the vicious circle of managing short-sightedness with lenses that tend to make the wearer progressively more short-sighted, seems akin to the dependence of so many readers on formulaic fiction that feeds an addiction to, e.g., likeable or at least recognisable characters, suspenseful plotting, rising action, a dramatic climax, a happy ending etc.

Anyway, Damon Young, Tara Moss and Irvine Welsh all read from their latest books. In the scene Welsh picked, one character steals another’s glasses while he’s asleep, sneaks away and destroys them with glee, then returns to find the short-sighted character freaking out because he can’t see.

A.M. HOMES: MAY WE BE FORGIVEN May 24, 6–7pm (‘Celebrated writer A.M. Homes speaks with Susan Wyndham about May We Be Forgiven, winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The novel is a breathtaking satire of modern American life that begins at full speed and never lets up.’)

Why did I pay to attend this event? It cost more than Homes’s novel, which I may never buy or read, as it sounds less compelling to me than some of her others. To be honest, I’ve read none of them. Yet. But I’m in awe of a couple of her long stories. Part of why Homes interests me is that she doesn’t write like most women. ‘I want to write what I don’t know,’ she said, and described her work as ‘emotional science fiction’, which makes more sense when you consider she mostly writes from a male perspective.

As she once told Jeanette Winterson about May We Be Forgiven, ‘I seem to have got into trouble in the US for writing a big book, a funny book. A book about sex. And race. A book about politics.’ And that, it now occurs to me, is why I went to see Homes live on stage – I want exposure to women writers who dare to take up space.

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