Cindy Fazzi’s recent post “Six Signs of a Literary Snob” here reminded me of the vehement debate around the effects of cliques formed around creative writing courses and literary journals in Australia which erupted in 2016 and resulted in a wild outburst from a young Australian author in that revered Melbourne literary journal Meanjin. Luke Carman has runs on the board. He has published short fiction in local journals (HEAT, Westside, Cultural Studies Review) and has been on the shortlist for a few recent prizes. He has published a book of short stories (An Elegant Young Man) and tutors in creative writing at the University of Western Sydney… but there are two strikes straight away. Short stories are considered somehow mildly deplorable and definitely not a mark of “real” literature, and Western Sydney – which means anywhere between Ashfield and Wentworth Falls – is by definition not a site from which worthwhile literary forms could possibly emerge.
Luke spat the dummy in a big way. He said that Australian literary endeavour had been infiltrated by “wannabes” who were “dictating terms for an artform to which they contribute nothing but their lordly presence”. Luke was taking on the prevalent literary snobbery in Australia which seems to be flourishing more vigorously than ever, especially regarding the books that agents and publishers are permitting past the starting gate, and in the award of literary prizes and other marks of distinction.
Cindy’s go-to list for the literary snob:
- Reads only literary fiction; absolutely no commercial genres for this reader.
- Refuses to read self-published books.
- Refuses to read any best seller, even if it’s literary.
- Doesn’t like to read feel-good books or happy endings. The more depressing a book, the better for this reader.
- Doesn’t like to read “easy” books. The more incomprehensible, the better.
- Won’t read a novel published after a certain decade or period (e.g., nothing after the 1960s or after 19th century, etc.)
This fits the Australian scene perfectly, except for #6. The literary world here is mainly devoted to recently published works from authors who have already made their mark on the Ozlit scene. Debut authors need to have come through a Creative Writing program in one of the main universities and consequently enjoyed Fellowships and residencies in prestigious programs. They are usually championed by an important figure, preferably a famous writer, who refers them on to agents and publishers. Agents and publishers want books whose themes resonate with the current cultural obsessions – indigenous dispossession, gender-based suffering, migrant disaffection, the struggles of the repentant drug addict – and have no interest in books which engage the general popular audience, those which sell well because of their exciting plots and “easy” writing. As for the happy ending, who could take that seriously?
A great example is the spectacular but largely culturally invisible writing career of Sydney author Liane Moriarty, recently dubbed “the most successful Australian author you’ve never heard of”. I came across her work entirely by accident, wandering about on Kindle as I do most nights, exploring new things to read. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman writer, offering great fiction about a Sydney I knew, so recognisable, real places and real (often horrible) Sydney people! I loved the first of her books and then bought and read all of them in quick succession. Now she can’t write fast enough to meet her reader’s demands. This is a writer who has sold six million books around the world. Her books are hardly light-weight. They address the dark side of Sydney suburban life in a way never written about before. Her endings aren’t “happy” although they aren’t necessarily tragic either. They are well-written, lovingly crafted and you can’t put them down. Now Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are starring in the movie adaptation of her smash-hit “Big Little Lies”. Oh, OK, there’s the problem right there! She is successful! People want to read her books! She’s sold the film rights! And she’s writing about Sydney suburbia. Not good among the Melbourne establishment which pretty much dominates the literary scene these days, or so everyone seems to agree.
So what about Luke Carman? He’s writing about Sydney too, but it’s a Sydney even Liane Moriarty’s fans won’t know much about. Set largely in his home-suburb of Liverpool, the characters in his stories reflect the turbulent and sometimes bizarre reality of contemporary life for the young in Western Sydney. They are addicts, poets, people who see ghosts, Lebbos, Grubby Boys, scumbag Aussies. His alter-ego writer loves Whitman and Kerouac and Leonard Cohen. The book is full of energy, edgy street-scenes and local voices, really INTENSE as the younger generation say. I loved his book, published by Giramondo, which is a pretty respectable local publisher, and wondered what had led to his “spray” in Meanjin here. It’s a wonderful but complicated essay, full of rage and bile. Many would join me in saying, “Luke, I feel you”.
Without doubt the Australian literary scene is self-referential and highly conservative. Obsessed with its own preservation, denying the validity of the e-book, loathing self-publishing, there seems to be in a kind of retro-neo-colonial suspension going on here. New forms of expression and new kinds of stories are ignored or, more accurately, not even recognised.
The overlap and interplay between visual and written culture is at an exciting place. As long-form television is replacing the standard movie, new strategies of writing (the long-form literary equivalent, as practiced by Knausgaard for example) opens up a new trajectory reminiscent of Proust. Screen-writers write fiction and turn their fictions back into television series – thinking here of that fabulous 2016 series Good Behaviour – and “books” can be as long or as short as writers like and readers enjoy.
It’s become a terrible struggle for the conventional author trying to get “the book” published in print. The e-alternative is terrible as well, especially trying to find a market with the five million books now available online. But writers can’t help themselves, they like to write, and readers like to read, it’s a question of finding new ways for them to get together. The canapés and champagne Harbourside set may still be seeking their Bourdieuan distinction, but there is a lot more to the writing scene now, thank goodness!