Update: Catriona Menzies-PikeWeek in Review

Being Geniuses Together

In the weeks before I took up the role of SRB editor in July last year many people whispered to me the name of a young Australian writer, Jack Cox. Since then I’ve fielded more review pitches for his first novel, Dodge Rose, than for any other book. (Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante and Patrick Modiano aren’t too far behind.) I’m not the only one. Reviews of Dodge Rose, which was published in January by Dalkey Archive after many delays, have already appeared in an impressive number of outlets, including The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald  and The Australian. This is an unusual circumstance for a first book by an Australian writer published by an independent US literary press little known in Australia. A long essay on Dodge Rose will appear in the SRB in due course so I’ll keep my remarks on the book itself brief. Still, this eddy of interest in a new, young, experimental Australian writer presents an irresistible opportunity to comment on the reception of difficult literary fiction and on the difficulty of separating the book itself, any book, from the buzz that precedes it. For some books that buzz takes the form of publisher’s releases and highly crafted social media campaigns, for others it manifests as gossip and testimonials, as in the case of Dodge Rose. There’s no binding reason to view the latter as somehow more authentic than the former and often the lines separating the commercial and the knowing are blurred, such as when friends and associates blurb each other’s books, or when publicists’ emails to editors adopt a cosy, confidential tone to share some exciting news about a new book.

Books like Dodge Rose, books which are digressive and recklessly obscure and go their own way regardless of the reader, are supposed to be unpublishable. Cox’s debut is a defiantly literary work, one which has got nothing to do with likeable characters or mellifluous effects or teachable moments. It’s exciting to see a young writer willing to throw his lot in with the avant-garde and resist the pull of realism – and also that there’s a publisher and critical scene ready to embrace him. As many reviewers have already observed, Dodge Rose is firmly lodged in a distinguished high modernist tradition of prose writing: Joyce, Beckett, Gass. Reviewers have also noted that the book has lots of faults but on the whole they’re less inclined to judge them than to praise the courage of the endeavour. This is writing that attracts epithets such as ‘obdurate’ and ‘challenging’. Not for the faint-hearted, say admirers, but what they often mean is, not for the feeble-minded.

Last  year some readers criticised the SRB for initiating conversations about the effect of packaging books as middlebrow, and also for scrutinising the role that literary institutions such as prizes and festivals play in shaping our ideas about books and authors. Why judge a book by the stickers on its cover? Why get stuck into prizes as an ineffective means of distributing literary monies? Why bother with the signals sent by design choices? Why not just concentrate on the books? There’s no doubt that middlebrow is a controversial designation, but what surprised me was the repeated proposition that what Gérard Genette calls ‘paratexts’, and Pierre Bourdieu nominates ‘the field’, should stay off limits to serious critics. In Dodge Rose we have an impeccable case study of a book that will reach most readers already situated in the economy of literary prestige as a valuable work. If ‘relatability’ is a keyword for the middlebrow, then ‘challenging’ might be the right one for the tradition into which Dodge Rose fits, and for critics, that appears to have real cachet. The accomplishment of Cox’s recapitulation of modernist aesthetic practice is beside the point. What Dodge Rose demonstrates is that just as the middlebrow (or the appealing or the commercial or the accessible or the book-clubbable) is an effect largely produced before anyone starts reading, so too is the highbrow (or the avant-garde or the after-modernist).

A good story helps. It’s been claimed by Cox’s editor at Dalkey, an American publisher known for avant-garde works, often in translation or as republications, that the manuscript for Dodge Rose fell out of the slush pile, that it was so good he worried it might be a prank played by an established writer. This is a fairy tale for aspiring writers: in this exemplary blind reading, a wonderful manuscript startles an editor out of his torpor. In suggesting that it might not be whom you know but what you’ve written that determines success, the Dodge Rose origin story is a nice antidote to the prevailing cynicism about publishing. Cox himself is nowhere to be seen, having managed to avoid the usual round of interviews and pre-publication hoopla to which first-time novelists are generally required to submit. Lucky him. In addition to all those review pitches, high profile admirers have conducted a word of mouth campaign on his behalf, the sincerity of which I do not doubt. I’m not suggesting that Cox (or his fans) are engaged in some kind of strategic or sinister performance to boost his sales or reputation. I do observe, however, that the figure who emerges from all of this, the committed artist who speaks only through his work, whose reputation is defended by those who recognised his worth early, is a stock character from literary history. This author is a rebel from the professional development advice now given to young writers: build your profile (pitch reviews and op-eds!), foster your networks (socialise!), speak to your readers (social media!). In most ways, he’s the anti-middlebrow: no blog, no heavy schedule of festival appearances, no book club notes. Whereas the work that some writers undertake to promote their books attracts snark, authors who display resistance to the commercial tend to be hailed as heroes.

The trope of the reticent, uncomfortable genius author primes a certain kind of reader to privilege their works in established schemes of literary value. David Foster Wallace was reticent – Jonathan Franzen is not. Gerald Murnane is uncomfortable in the spotlight – Richard Flanagan is not. James Joyce relied on his friends to promote and explicate his work – Hemingway did the rounds himself. Kafka had Max Brod. There are a couple of women writers I could have named to help make my point here, but usually the writers who benefit from these conventions in terms of acclaim are men. Indeed, the prose tradition into which Dodge Rose fits is largely white, male and Eurocentric, and so too are its boosters. And of course, it’s more common for women writers to see their work presented by publishers and received by readers as middlebrow (whether or not they are engaged in formal experiment or play with literary history) – and one presumes that writers who aren’t too fussed about selling their books have other ways of paying their bills.

One question lingers around these discussions, is the book any good? The answer to this question is always mediated: by book design, blurbs, reviews, festivals, recommendations, prizes. Publicists are doing their job when they manage to convince readers (and editors) that a book is worth their time and money but they’re not the only agents at work. If Dodge Rose hadn’t been on my radar, the sheer number of emails I’ve received about the book telling me that it’s significant would have put it there. Critical journals such as the SRB are brokers of cultural capital, and we need to reflect on how we produce and disseminate notions of literary value, whether we are talking about the avant-garde or the commercial. This, then, is a long answer to those surprisingly numerous neo-New Critics who argue that reputational matters are inappropriate terrain for critics. Why not just read the book on its merits?  Blind reading might work for writing competitions – but as a critical mode it’s neither attainable or desirable.

This brings me to our first two essays for 2016, which address themselves to two very different incarnations of avant-garde and experimental writing: Michael Farrell on Nick Whittock’s hows its  and Nicholas Jose on Moya Costello’s Harriet Chandler. These books are even further away from the literary mainstream than Dodge Rose and much harder to place: Whittock’s work is published by a very small press, Inken Publisch, and Costello’s is self-published. The careers of Whittock and Costello don’t conform to the scripted version of avant-garde writing and authorship I’ve described above.

Of Harriet Chandler, Nicholas Jose asks, ‘How can it be, then, that this brilliant, beautiful book has slipped through the net?’ The example of Costello suggests that not all authors benefit from keeping a distance from promotional circuses, and not all breaks with the prevailing mode of congenial novelistic realism are greeted with enthusiasm. Jose writes:

Partly it is the authorial choice not to market herself in the usual way, when there’s plenty to crowd out a book like this. It may also be a symptom of conformity, where received expectations of who and what is worth bothering with take all the oxygen.

These expectations of who and what is worth bothering with can become clamorous, especially in the relatively small Australian literary scene. Critics line up to weigh in on one work, insisting that it matters, that it’s urgent – and express little interest in another. In Australia, poets are less likely to be conveyed to new readers via hype, not even if their work is dedicated to cricket, as Nick Whittock’s is. Farrell writes: ‘The everyday quality of cricket might suggest a perfect match with avant-garde writing, but cricket hasn’t always and everywhere been as it is in Australia: an assemblage of backyards, racism and Twitter-fed sex scandals.’ And indeed, the idea of the avant-garde hasn’t always and everywhere been fixed:

it’s a perfectly acceptable term: terms are remade. If they’re defunct they go into disuse, you can’t argue them out of existence. The term circulates, and attaches, subjectively, to moments, works, contexts, writers, events.

The middlebrow and the avant-garde, the accessible and the challenging, the marketable and the obscure: as these heavily-coded terms are pinned to old and new works, so too should critics and readers work to unpin them, at least to see if they’re a good fit.

Finally, in From the Archive this week we turn to another representative of the Australian avant-garde, Christopher Barnett, via Francesca Sasnaitis’ 2014 essay on when they came / for you elegies / of resistance, a book of poems about a young Turkish activist that appeared first on Facebook, were then gradually hand-printed by Melbourne artist Marian Crawford, and then published by Wakefield Press. The different modes of publication produce different scenes of reading and Sasnaitis’ essay is in part, testimony to the restlessness that this can generate:

Were this review not imminent, I would have preferred to read the text like a book of hours, a poem a day over several years, each day a meditation on the fate of Doğan, of dissidents, activists, and the artist-poet’s place in this imperfect world. My speedier reading served to highlight repetitions – a legitimate poetic device especially suited to Barnett’s performative work. But at a certain point I was fatigued by the poet’s interminable exhortations and seemingly endless litany of atrocities. Only later did I realise that I had taken on the poet’s fatigue. I was weighed down by his disillusionment, regret and occasional hopelessness; I was drowning in his refusal to forget.