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Early in 2010, Ted Genoways, editor of respected US journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, published an article entitled ‘The Death of Fiction?’, which discussed the perilous circumstances of US literary journals, and sought to blame both their demise and the decreasing relevance of fiction on the fact that ‘most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues – as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism’. While Genoways acknowledged some other factors, including the ‘blockbuster mentality of book publishing’ and ‘corporate conglomeration’, he saved his most bitter invective for writers, particularly those products of creative writing programs, who need to ‘swear off navel-gazing … and write something we might want to read’ (notice the polemic ‘we’, here, since we’re all on the same side, aren’t we?). In particular, he believes writers should write about the Iraq War, which, of course, Don DeLillo did recently in Point Omega. But never mind that.

Genoways is right to call attention to the plight of literary magazines, but ‘The Death of Fiction?’ is ultimately a weird, contradictory piece of writing. Genoways expresses a desire to ‘rescue public discourse’, but his article is filled with populist language, glaring generalities and unnuanced argumentation – the very anti-intellectual rhetorical gestures that characterise Fox News reporting. Precisely for these reasons, ‘The Death of Fiction?’ has generated a whirlwind of responses, and now Genoways’s argument has come to Australia, with local literary journals Harvest and Overland weighing in.

Before moving on to these local responses, I’d like to note the problems with applying Genoways’s critique – such as it is – to Australia. First of all, US literary journals are almost solely produced by universities. This is not the case in Australia. While there are exceptions (Meanjin, Westerly and, to a lesser degree, Overland, for example), many if not most Australian literary journals are completely independent from the academy; US journals don’t have access to the kind of government arts support available in Australia, and rely therefore on funding from patrons and institutions.

Moreover, Australian literary journals have considerably more public visibility than their US counterparts; the Virginia Quarterly Review, for example, claims a circulation of more than 7000 – which would certainly be a large number by Australian standards. But when you consider that the US population is roughly fifteen times the size of Australia, this figure becomes considerably less impressive. An Australian literary journal that published even 700 copies, proportionally speaking, would reach a more significant audience than the Virginia Quarterly Review – and, in fact, most Australian literary journals would have a circulation between one and three thousand.

The continuing importance of literary magazines in Australian public discourse is reflected in the fact that the articles they publish often get picked up by larger media outlets. (As I was revising this article in August, for example, I happened across a piece by Chris Womersley in The Age, an excerpt of a longer article in a recent issue of Meanjin. Overland staff members often appear in the broader media, like on the ABC’s The Drum. I myself was interviewed in June for The Book Show on ABC Radio National in relation to an article I published in Overland. Virtually no US literary journals would have these kinds of opportunities to interact with the mass media. While Australian lit mags undeniably face significant problems, their problems are not the same as those Genoways discusses.)

Secondly, it’s simply incorrect to presume that US and Australian creative writing programs are homologous. Purely on a structural level, the US and Australian university systems are completely different. Creative writing programs in the US are incredibly exclusive; as the University of Virginia claims on its website, for example, only twelve students are admitted into its MA program each year out of a pool of more than 600. But, due to the fact that most universities here are public, Australian creative writing programs are inherently both more open and diverse: admissions are far less exclusive, students within programs have disparate levels of experience, postgraduate course fees are lower than in the US, and scholarships and other forms of funding are more readily available. As a result, students in Australian programs produce writing across a broad range of genres and forms. Take, for example, my own experience of completing a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, in 2005. Out of the students in my course, only half were writing what could be considered ‘standard’ literary fiction, and the other genres included: two works of speculative fiction, a video game script, a hybrid travelogue/fairy tale, and a novel that might be best described as a ‘literary’ thriller.

Moreover, half were writing works with social, historical or political themes, including a book about a refugee who had escaped from detention, a book about the Algerian Civil War, a book about Washington DC post 9/11 (yes, that’s me), and a book about Darwin after Cyclone Tracy. This doesn’t exactly sound like a factory for turning out ‘navel-gazing’ literature. And while the above is admittedly anecdotal evidence, my experience teaching creative writing in other institutions has borne out my belief that the Australian model is already a much broader church than its US counterpart.

But at the heart of Genoways’s screed lies the larger issue of ‘literature’ itself – what it should be (based on essentially unsubstantiated assumptions about what it is) and how to save it from ‘dying’. The crux of Genoways’s argument is that everything will be okay if writers who ‘have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers’ adopt instead an ‘outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers’.

Harvest, which combines beautiful design with high-quality writing – and is an exemplar of the excellent new crop of literary journals that have appeared in Australia over the last few years – offers what is, to my mind, an uncharacteristically strange response. In the editorial of the Winter 2010 issue, editor Davina Bell seems to more or less agree with Genoways’s point that current Australian writers are engaged in navel-gazing, but responds by citing – in admittedly fine prose – the increasing atomisation of society created by mediation (‘While our brains were not yet hardened, we watched a plane being flown into a building over and over, until it meant nothing and everything’), a series of clichés about Baby Boomers versus Generation Y (‘While our parents played in the streets and camped in fields, slept on beaches and hitch-hiked with abandon, [our generation] grew up to fear paedophiles, strangers, gangs, drunk-drivers, free time, underachievement’) and technological determinism (‘Cacophonous technology plays like a soundtrack around us, and the world is screened through screens, often as intangible as an mp3’). In this sense, I think Harvest gives Genoways far too much credit, taking as a given his unsubstantiated generalisations about writers and readers, as well as agreeing with the dubious proposition that writing – navel-gazing or not – is simply reportage of the world (whether autobiographical or political). Ultimately, Bell refutes Genoways by arguing that ‘we are the wrecked and lovely world’ and that ‘our writing’ is ‘as real as the Iraq war, and often as heartbreaking’.

While there may well be some truth in this assertion, comparing one’s creative writing to the atrocities of the Iraq War does appear a bit crass, to put it mildly. And it’s in this sense that Jacinda Woodhead at Overland, one of Australia’s greatest and longest-running literary journals, responds in an articulate blog post, noting that ‘it is both ahistorical and apolitical to suggest that politics – and all the ambiguities and complexities involved in power relations in society – is not central to literature’. Her worry is that the writerly ‘gaze infatuated with its own, isolated existence … turns inwards when faced with dec­ade-long wars’. In a sense, her argument seems to be that what might broadly be called ‘aestheticism’ is political by virtue of being apolitical; this flight from reality is, in fact, a shirking of political responsibility. While I sympathise with Woodhead on these points, the problem with Overland’s response lies in its conclusions: ‘our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them.’ My concerns here can be summarised in three questions: Whose morals? Which aesthetics? And what, really, does it mean to ‘write about’ major political issues?

I remain very wary of assertions of ‘moral’ (and/or ‘ethical’) imperatives, since these morals are often assumed to be shared without being defined. What are the morals here and, to ask the Leninist question, who stands to benefit from them? But the even bigger problem is this: why do writers have such a moral imperative? If writers have a moral imperative to produce political writing, do shoemakers have a moral imperative to create political shoes? (Indeed, it would actually appear that shoemakers have a much stronger moral imperative, since not only must they make products that deliver on their promises to customers, but they are also directly involved with globalised networks of exchange and production, and resulting questions about human rights and working conditions in the third world.)

But aside from not defaming people or writing instructions on how to make a nuclear bomb, can anyone really claim that writers have any moral imperatives? It remains equally unclear how writers could possibly have any aesthetic imperatives. Indeed, from Woodhead’s perspective, aesthetics are ultimately subservient to moral or ethical positions; in this sense, their aesthetics are not imperative at all, but a contingency of a more urgent morality. As Woodhead argues, ‘writers should be looking at ways to engage with the world, because what is the point of writing yet another poem about our lonely, loveless existence?’

Whenever writers produce these kinds of polemics, they tend to pretend as if ‘we’ all know what we’re talking about, but do we? What does it even mean for writing to ‘engage with the world’? It seems here that Woodhead and Genoways both make a questionable assump­tion about the way both literature and representation function. Woodhead and Genoways appear to share an Aristotelian conception of ‘mimesis’ in which art effectively holds a mirror up to the world, reflecting reality (or ‘reality’). To put it another way, they seem to assume that literature has to be ‘about’ something, that it must have a ‘point’ – but this is not really the case. I could say, for example, that Joyce’s Ulysses is ‘about’ a guy walking around Dublin in 1904, and, while it would be ‘true’, such a description would be a complete misrepresentation of the actual experience of reading Ulysses. Literature is not just a reflection of reality; rather (and I’m risking teaching you to suck eggs here), literature is a sustained, linguistic act recorded through writing.

Because it is language, literature has its own materiality, its own reality, which is irreducibly tied to the fact that it is language. To pretend that novels can unproblematically ‘engage with the world’ is a naïve view that ignores a century of developments resulting from structural linguistics, which demonstrate that language does not function as a direct relationship between word and thing. I’m not saying that writers need to understand structural linguistics (in the way that you don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car), but critics do (in the way that you need to know how an engine works to understand a car), or else they will reproduce banal generalisations.

To explain it simply, language doesn’t have a discrete, unambiguous meaning, and any two readers can read a text and come to very different (and mutually exclusive) conclusions about it. But here’s the problem: they may both be right. This has profound effects on Woodhead’s claim. To use a concrete example, let’s consider the work of Samuel Beckett, a writer who was accused of being apolitical and aestheticist by Georg Lukács, among many others. Most critics would fail to see significant political content in his play Waiting for Godot, but the politically active, right-wing critic Hugh Kenner argues in The Counterfeiters that the entire play could be read as a reflection on Beckett’s own participation in the resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France. So is the play apolitical aestheticism or a post-World War II fable? The answer, sadly, is dependent not on the text itself, but rather on how you read it. But Genoways and Woodhead ignore this and speak about literature as if we all already know what it is, as if it were a thing like a table – and a thing that must have a clear and practical ‘use’. As Kenner has put it, ‘That one does not know what modern works are “about” is a frequent complaint, and a misguided complaint since it is their most deliberated characteristic.’

This return to antiquated notions of literature is worrisome, because, too often, the claim that literature isn’t ‘political’ enough results in a nostalgia for nineteenth-century social novels, like those of Dickens and Gissing, that offer clear morals. This turn recurs repeatedly in otherwise well-intentioned left-wing criticism (for example, Lukács’s socialist realism, as well as the polemics for social literature offered by Jonathan Franzen, Dale Peck and James Wood over the last decade). More problematically, there is no reason to presume that writing such kinds of ‘politically engaged’ novels will actually result in any material social change. Perhaps neither Woodhead nor Genoways are arguing for a return to the social novel, but their seemingly reductive notions of how both literature and language ‘work’ don’t reassure me.

I’m not saying great literature can’t include explicitly political con­tent (and it’s a shame that twentieth-century works, like William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and George Oppen’s poems – all of which are both ‘political’ and ‘experimental’ – remain so infrequently read), but to claim that all work must be overtly political, or that there even exists some clear demarcation between works that are political and those that arent, is simply untrue.

Perhaps Woodhead and Genoways should instead argue for more politically motivated criticism. I’m all for that, especially if it is nuanced and intelligent criticism that seeks to understand a work of literature through its internal linguistic structures, or the contexts (historical, social, political or otherwise) in which it places itself. But these kinds of polemics, which pretend to dissect ‘literature’ like a patient etherised upon a table, are self-fulfilling prophecies: they set up straw men and then knock them down.

The problem with popular literary discourse is that there is less and less room for actual detailed analysis and discussion of literary works. These diatribes are no substitute for actual criticism. Literature, whatever else it may be, is complex – and reductive arguments based on unfounded generalities don’t do anything to explain what it is or how it works. These kinds of broadsides may create a great deal of controversy and debate – in other words, publicity – but publicity is no substitute for ‘engaged’ critical thought.

I’m not trying to attack Overland or Harvest, which are both great literary journals that I hope continue to thrive, but I do think we shouldn’t mistake literary sensationalism for literary criticism. Indeed, our great Australian literary journals should offer precisely the venue in which ‘engaged’ criticism can flourish.