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So many paths that wind and wind

A few months back I was drinking in a pizza joint in San Francisco with an energetic young journalist who was back from Kabul, where he was covering the war, and from Oxford, where he had just finished a Masters thesis on nomadism. In the course of the evening he told stories about John Updike, about meeting Lewis Lapham, about his book on Iraq, and about a 150-page poem he wrote out on the Mongolian Steppes. He had first been a stringer for Time in his teens, and now, at 29, he flew in and out of world cities weekly. In my Pabst-smeared state he seemed, except for his bottle-thick glasses, in every way extraordinary – and even those glasses magnified him in some way. Who was this writer? How did I not know of him?

But of course, it turned out that I did know of him – not through the stories he told that evening, but through another story, his myth of origin. Nick McDonell was famous from the time he was seventeen when he published the novel Twelve (2002), about drugs and sex among wealthy Manhattan teenagers. He and it had arrived in the New York literary world as ready-made bestsellers – boosted by quotes from family friends, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Richard Price. McDonell and his book deserve their fame, but despite three subsequent books, he will, I suspect, always be partly understood, like Gore Vidal fifty years before him, through the story of his early success.

And so it is that every book and every writer needs their own story of how they came to be: some reason that their book was written, some reason it was published, some reason it should be picked up in a bookstore. This is particularly so for debut writers, who must try their luck in, as William Blake put it, a desolate market where none come to buy. Sometimes it seems that anything will do as a hook for our interest: the author’s personal story, the epic tale of how a book was written, or a boast about the size of the advance. Publicists must find something – even if they often resort to the shop-worn.

This year, two debuting Australian writers and their publishers have had a great deal to boast about. Text Publishing’s media materials for Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project trumpet that the book had been sold into 40 territories and that at the time of publication it had already earned advances totalling $2 million. Pan Macmillan’s bumf for Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites emphasises that the book has been sold into eighteen countries and a whispering campaign has made it well-known that Kent struck a two-book deal worth more than $1 million. The announcement of these aspects of each book’s deal primed readers with the important knowledge that a bunch of publishers agree that these are great books. But it also signalled what was at stake for each publisher. A hefty advance that does not earn itself out effectively comes out of the publisher’s share. The author walks away already remunerated. The publishers are in up to their necks with these two titles.

The promotional material for each book offers a number of other narratives beyond those involving cash – and some of these are more interesting than others. Kent’s concentrates on the background to the novel itself: the death sentence on Agnes Magnusdottir in Iceland in 1829 for a murder she may or may not have committed. But there is also a short biography of Kent that is really a list of credentials: prizes won, degrees completed, literary judgeships served and editorships undertaken. From Text,  we get a blurb about the plot of The Rosie Project, a short list of the prizes Simsion has won, and a statement from him about how the work came to be – from screenplay to short story, then, via workshopping, redevelopment into a prize-winning manuscript.

Simsion’s note to his readers looks something like the kind of self-exegesis common in higher degree programs in creative writing. Postgraduate students explain their intentions, their application of technique, their struggle and their achievement. The author might be dead in literary studies departments, but the author’s intentions are fundamental to creative writing studies – and, it seems, to publishers’ publicists. Simsion’s author statement is heavy with extractable material. It can be easily pulled apart by journalists for use as quotes or as a template for interviews – and that is exactly what seems to have happened in a number of cases. The Text website page for the book goes further, offering grabs from twelve reviews, a Youtube interview, a direct-to-camera piece for book clubs, book club notes, a 57-second trailer, some podcasts, some interviews, some quizzes and a recipe. There is a certain boastful vulgarity to the whole enterprise. Any pretence that writing and publishing are not fundamentally commercial gives way in the face of an avalanche of boosterish public relations material.

By contrast, the books and authors published in short runs are presented quite differently. When, early in 2013, University of Queensland Press released Chris Somerville’s debut short story collection, We Are Not The Same Anymore, the publisher made no mention in its media materials of the advance paid to the author. Rumour has it that the advance was healthy enough for a short-run title (I am guessing at a print run of 2000 or so) – but whatever it was, it was only drinking money compared to Simsion’s and Kent’s cheques. Instead, UQP’s marketing bumf emphasises the quality of Somerville’s prose. A quote from Benjamin Law – who has become as busy as Gary Shteyngart in blurb-whoring for a generation of younger writers – describes the book as ‘such damn fine stories: surprising, deft and always revealing’.

Likewise, when Sleepers Publishing released Balli Kaur Jaswal’s debut novel, Inheritance, they stressed the book’s cultural work. Inheritance is a

nation’s coming-of-age story, seen through the sharp lens of a traditional Punjabi family as it gradually unravels. Set in Singapore between 1970 and 1990 Inheritance follows the familial fissures that develop after teenaged Amrit disappears.

Andrew Cowan, perhaps a university colleague of Jaswal’s from her time at University of East Anglia, describes Inheritance in a solicited quote as ‘an exceptional debut’ and states that Jaswal’s ‘gifts are immense’. Sleepers often pay no advance at all, so there was nothing to boast about there. Reasonably enough then, a skirt is drawn around the vulgar question of money – particularly when there is so little of it. Literary qualities and cultural value are pushed to the fore.

Prizes and publisher advances are one form of market credentialism; peer blurbs like Law’s are another. All of these books have been extensively endorsed. Between the four titles there are eleven testimonials on the books themselves, and a bunch more in the PR material. Some are from friends of the writers, some from friends of the publisher, some from apparently disinterested parties. Some are known to me, some mysterious. I suppose the best that can be said about such quotes is that it is nice to see that writers have friends; but it must be much nicer when you have famous writer friends.

One of the challenges in marketing novels and short story collections – outside the field of genre fiction, where publishers often seek to emphasise uniformity – is the difficulty in communicating what is interesting or different about a book. It is an unread and thus mostly unknown item. And as we know, unread books are to be mistrusted. They disappoint as often as they please. Instead, as is the case with these four titles, it is often easier to speak of the author, or of the writing process, or of the book’s financial circumstances. Oddly though, even as the publicists seek to distinguish one book from the next, the narratives employed begin to sound the same.

These books show a new emphasis in Australian author bios on the explication of a writer’s formal literary credentials. Once upon a time, writers credentialed themselves through the lives they led:

Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, stealing oysters from the beds of large farmers and selling them at the Oakland markets. He also did a little gold prospecting, and he may or may not have spent time as a hobo.

Or:

Between graduating from the Colorado School of Mines and starting his MFA at Syracuse, George Saunders worked in a slaughterhouse, in a convenience store, as a doorman in Beverly Hills, as a groundsman, as a roofer, and as a geophysicist.

Goofball jobs and time spent outdoors were at a premium. By contrast in all four of these recent books, instead of ordinary lives or extraordinary lives, these writers have led literary lives:

Chris Somerville was born in Launceston, Tasmania in 1984 and now lives in Queensland. In 2003 he won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Awards and in 2009 he was shortlisted for the Queensland Premiers Literary Awards, Emerging Author category. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Paper Radio, Islet and Stilts. He has taught in the creative writing programs at both Griffith University and the University of Queensland.

And:

Balli Kaur Jaswal grew up in Singapore, Japan, Russia and the Philippines. She attended university in the United States and in Australia. In 2007, she won the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where she wrote Inheritance, her first novel.

Any time spent oyster shucking is neglected.

Among our debutants, we get new narratives of the pathways to publication for Australian writers: shortlistings, prizes won, fellowships, teaching appointments, and creative writing degrees completed. This seems to be a product of the conditions of contemporary Australian (and all anglophone) writing. The 1820s saw publishing houses take their final leave from the stationers’ shops; the 1880s saw literary agents evolve as a distinctive species in the literary ecology; the 1990s and early 2000s saw the emergence of new varieties of literary intermediaries. The story goes that as globalised publishing, shorn of its profit margins, sought to spend less on editing and as harried agents undertook less developmental work, writers’ centres, publisher development programs, publisher academies, manuscript appraisal services, manuscript prizes and creative writing programs came into being.

The truth of this and the direction of causality are not easy to ascertain. Educational editors have always spent more time on textbooks than literary editors ever did on novels and poetry. And it is not clear that beyond various engoldened examples – such as Beatrice Davis at A&R in the 1950s, or UQP in the 1970s, or McPhee Gribble in the 1980s – that Australian editing culture was anywhere as skilled or as interventionist as its American equivalent. The rise of new intermediaries does seem to be partly a result of cultural policy – with government funding for writers’ centres and the like – but also partly the result of post-Fordian specialisation. Either way, it has created a series of steps through which many writers move, and has provided services that foster some and winnow out others.

Kent’s and Simsion’s manuscripts were identified through competitions for unpublished manuscripts. Once upon a time, the Australian / Vogel Literary Award had this role to itself, but now it shares space with more than half a dozen prizes for full-length unpublished manuscripts – a number of them as part of state government funded suites of awards. Some of these awards, such as the Vogel and the Queensland Literary Awards Emerging Writer Prize, are tied to publication with a particular publisher. Others provide cash, recognition, and a pathway to interested readers at a number of publishing houses. Multiple purposes are served: new writers have somewhere else beyond the slush pile to aim their work; the process of sorting through potential manuscripts is contained; and the winning works get a boost on their way.

Everyone among our group of authors has studied creative writing in a tertiary program. Simsion’s experience seems to have been a brief one at RMIT; Somerville is yet to finish his honours degree at Griffith University (although he is in line for their Young Alumni of Year award); Kent wrote her novel as part of a PhD at Flinders University; Jaswal wrote Inheritance as part of a fellowship at the University of East Anglia.

This should not be a surprise because completing a graduate-level program does measurably improve one’s chances of making it between hard or soft covers. Undergraduate programs don’t often throw up book-length manuscripts or writers ready for publication (although, for example, both Romy Ash and Benjamin Law came through QUT’s undergraduate program a decade or so ago). But higher research degrees in the field often produce such outcomes. Around 30 percent of all masters-level projects and 50 percent of all doctoral-level projects achieve publication. For my money, this is because the graduate programs are themselves selective; and then they offer an unusually rich editorial experience. You get edited all along the way, from the time you propose your project, to confirmation, to mid-candidature, to final review, not to mention examination. Work that has been awarded a higher degree in creative writing may or may not be interesting, but it is unlikely to be wholly incompetent.

How readers perceive these academic credentials and might differentiate between them is hard to say. In the US, the Iowa and Columbia programs are famous enough that they are worth mentioning on your resume. In the UK, East Anglia’s program (where Malcolm Bradbury taught Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and a long line of others) has had boasting rights. In Australia, it is not clear – no matter what the Excellence in Research Assessment (ERA) exercise says – that there is a single leading program. In 2012, the University of Adelaide scored a five out of five for being ‘well above world standard’, but this was possibly boosted because J.M. Coetzee’s ‘outputs’ were in their pool. A number of universities were inseparable in second place: Deakin, Monash, Melbourne, UNSW, Queensland, Sydney, UWA, and Western Sydney all scored four out of five on the 1904 code (Performing Arts and Creative Writing). But this is all inside baseball – no-one queuing in Dymocks is likely to care.

For some, creative writing programs remain suspect. The quality media in the US regularly give space to kvetching about the stultifying impact of the MFA on American letters and American literary careers. Mark McGurl, in The Program Era (2009), makes the case that the influence of creative writing programs on postwar American literature has been decisive and broadly positive, but his sympathetic interpretation has attracted strong criticism, notably from Elif Batuman, who questioned both the cultural value and the intellectual foundations of creative writing programs in a long essay for the London Review of Books. In Australia, a case against creative writing programs is also made from time to time—albeit in pretty unorganised ways. Frank Moorhouse, despite time at Griffith University, has taken a free kick or two, but mostly it is journalists who seem to resent the leisure of the postgraduate student writing a novel on a modest scholarship. For example, Lisa Pryor – herself once a prodigy, though not quite in Nick McDonell’s class (she did very well in the Higher School Certificate, I believe) – has criticised Australian programs in the Fairfax press as ‘a racket’ that supports jobs for academics but only caters to ‘gutless’ writers.

I venture that the effect, so far, of twenty years of creative writing programs on Australian letters is actually not at all clear. No one in the discipline itself has yet done the work of reading or examining the corpus created within the programs for their preoccupations or stylistics. Mythologies abound though: the writing is samey; everyone writes likes Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson; Adelaide produces nothing but misery memoirs; UTS make you write ficto-criticism. Maybe this is all true; maybe none of it is.

The lack of incompetence I mentioned earlier (and I don’t mean that unkindly) is certainly evident in all four books here. Each seems modern – that is, they are largely shorn of exposition, mostly mimetic, and broadly demotic rather than highly formal or colourfully colloquial. But no one is taking any crazy chances. These books are unities. They display an awareness of form and genre. They avoid ‘bad’ writing as we generally understand it: their prose is not prolix, overstated, florid, convoluted or inelegant. Somerville’s stories in We Are Not the Same Anymore hang pleasingly but safely in the canopy of American minimalism. His prose is so spare that one might believe that Gordon Lish himself edited it. Overall the collection is wry and it serves up epiphanies about love and family. There is an impression of control rather than of excess: an impression of barely present emotions that are evident only in asides and silences and recalled misadventures. Jaswal is perhaps the most self-consciously literary of the four – her writing is described as ‘beautiful’ in a number of reviews, which I take to mean she attends more generously to the intricacies of her characters’ inner worlds. Her characters are often sad. The language has a clear metaphorical dimension. And the personal can be read as political. There is a plot but, unlike the novels of Simsion and Kent, it is not vital to the kind of post-colonial cultural work that Jaswal’s novel can be seen to undertake.

By contrast, perhaps the publishing success of Simsion and Kent rests exactly on the heavily plotted nature of their novels. Simsion’s The Rosie Project is an easy read. It has a watered-down style that presents having Asperger’s Syndrome as quite a deal of fun. We are in the realm of the campus lad-lit rom-com. The book lacks the emotional charge of some 1990s UK lad-lit, but it does give us a pleasingly dewy romance from the perspective of a male academic in early middle-age. It is ready-made for public transport and the big screen. Its politics, if it has any, are about negotiating and accepting difference.

If none of these books takes outrageous chances, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights shows the most ambition – and she is rewarded and punished for it. She immerses us in the detail of the remote north of Iceland in the now remote year of 1829. Her story of Agnus Magnusdottir’s imprisonment and approaching death is dark. Her grasp of psychological detail is impressive, but the shifting points of view risk tiring the reader. We are always starting again with another voice. Overall, it impresses, but in some ways it is the clever choice of material rather than a sense of complete control that works here.

These books came to us via a variety of pathways. The genesis story of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – her own intoxication with Iceland, after visiting there when she was seventeen – probably has the greatest emotional appeal of any of the narratives of how these books came to be. But Chris Somerville’s path to publication is perhaps the most interesting from an institutional point of view. Beyond his writing talent, Somerville’s arrival at UQP’s door seems to have come about partly through his networks with other young writers. He has studied creative writing, won or been shortlisted for a prize or two, and he now tutors at the University of Melbourne, and for me at the University of Queensland. But his publication seems to have resulted partly from the way he circulates prominently among a generation of young writers in Melbourne and Brisbane. Somerville is an alumnus of Voiceworks magazine, The Lifted Brow, and Stilts. He is part of a scene that has supported the work of Benjamin Law, Michelle Law, Ronnie Scott, Jack Vening, Romy Ash, Michaela McGuire and Lorelei Vashti – all of whom studied at QUT – and Anna Krien, Tom Doig and Marieke Hardy at the Melbourne end.

The young writer scene (which in some ways does and some ways does not map the emerging writer scene) now has its own institutions, and thus its own ways of sorting quality and value. Undergraduate writing programs create the impression that there are bureaucratised pathways from apprenticeship to publication. The universities in the field offer a range of ‘industry’ experiences from readings in bars, to publication in student anthologies, to mandatory internships. QUT, typical of the leadership of the technical universities, offers students the opportunity to win novelty cheques for large cash sums. The sandstone universities lumber behind, pondering how exactly any of their arts graduates might pass from campus life into the wider literary world. The Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF) and the National Young Writers Festival (NYWF) provide moments for young writers to gather in self-identifying and somewhat self-serving packs. The EWF seems entirely careerist, while the NYWF is a hoot and a mess, and it retains something (but not everything) of its radical intellectual roots. But as much as these festivals are for younger writers, they are also for younger publishers, agents, and broadcasters who are on the lookout for talent. The administrators of these events move between these roles, and between time at writers’ centres, literary journals, the ‘grown-up’ festivals, and sometimes eventually publishing houses. Many –  Ben Eltham, for example – are involved in Australian experiments in citizen and digital-only journalism. There is an ongoing sifting and sorting as some writers work harder for, or seem more deserving of, opportunities to read their work, chair and speak on panels, and eventually achieve publication. Social media, of course, has made these networks larger, more dense and more visible than ever before. I now (kind of) know what is happening in Sydney and Melbourne week by week, whereas in the past – say when Jane Palfreyman, Sophie Cunningham, and others were identified as the new face of Australian publishing in the mid-1990s – the more immediate ‘in-real-life’ networking at the major writers’ festivals was important.

On the whole, the achievement across this group of books does not seem markedly varied. As I have sought to say, there is something to admire in each, but I would certainly rather be in Hannah Kent’s or Graeme Simsion’s hi-tops. I would rather have written a highly competent plot-driven novel, and already have a million dollars in the bank, international publishing contracts, and a movie deal. Kent and Simsion seem to have grasped more clearly what publishers are really looking for. Publishers are the intermediary market for writers; they must be convinced before readers ever have to be. Or alternatively, publishers more clearly grasp that Kent and Simsion have what readers are looking for. And now, as far as these publishers are concerned – with millions of dollars already invested – these authors are brands that must be backed. So far, Kent’s and Simsion’s brands rest on their authorial stories rather than their actual novels. But, like Nick McDonell’s, their story is a simple but powerful one: I did it; I won the literary lottery; read me; I may do it again.

References

Elif Batuman, ‘Get a  Real Degree,’ London Review of Books (23 September 2010).
Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2009).
Lisa Pryor, ‘A novel idea turns creative writing into an academic racket,’ The Age (27 February 2010).