James Bradley is a novelist, a critic, a poet and an editor. He spoke with SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike about the shape of a writing career in progress.
CMP: Let’s observe the conventions and start with your own career as a writer. Looking back, where do the milestones sit?
JB: I’m always a bit wary of the idea of careers, mostly because it doesn’t recognise how much of what happens to you as a writer is personal and creative, and has almost nothing to do with the things the public sees. So although it looks like you write one book and then another and then another, the reality is much messier than that, and the books are really part of a larger process that’s surprisingly difficult to understand when you’re in the middle of it. But I suppose if you wanted an outline of my writing life it would begin when I was about 22 or 23, when I started writing and publishing poems. That came pretty much out of nowhere – I’d always read a lot but it never really occurred to me I might write until I was in my 20s, at least partly because growing up in Adelaide it always seemed like books and culture came from elsewhere. At some point pretty soon after that I decided I wanted to write fiction, so I wrote a few stories and then wrote Wrack, which did well, and opened a lot of doors for me, and then, very quickly, managed to write The Deep Field, which did well as well. After that things went off the rails a bit: although I’d found it relatively easy to write The Deep Field I had a very bad time writing The Resurrectionist, at least partly because I placed a lot of pressure on myself, and although it did well (and I’m very proud of it) when it eventually came out I was in such a mess by the time it came out I wasn’t sure I could keep writing.
Over the next few years I had a number of projects that fell over, and eventually I reached a point where I decided I had to find a healthier relationship with what I was doing, so I took a quite conscious decision to do what I’d always tell others to do, which is write what I want to write, and only spend time on projects I really care about. That decision was incredibly liberating, and freed me up to write Clade. But it’s helped me in other ways as well, in particular by making me a lot less worried about what other people think. Writers tend to be very controlling about their image and how they’re perceived in the literary economy. I try very hard not to let that stuff be what drives me.
Alongside my work as a novelist I’ve had a parallel career as a reviewer. That came about almost by accident, but really began at some point in my early 20s, partly because I had this absurd notion I might be able to make a living writing reviews, and partly because I hadn’t studied English or literature at university. I thought it might be a way of training myself to be a better reader and writer by developing better critical skills. But it’s become a huge part of my life, and one I enjoy very much, partly because it helps keep my natural restlessness in check by letting me try new things and scurry down rabbitholes that look interesting, partly because it’s helped keep the thing that’s my first love – reading – at the heart of what I do.
This decision to become a certain kind of writer – that’s at odds with the notion that a writer’s career is a wholly romantic vocation. Tell me more about the design of a literary career.
I think writing is always a romantic vocation at some level, because you just can’t do it unless you’ve got that desire – that need – to make things, to create. But unless you’re Emily Dickinson it’s also a profession: you have to learn to finish things and work with editors and manage the public stuff, and although they’re all things that can come into conflict with that original romantic impulse they also create opportunities and spark ideas and possibilities.
I think the real challenge is working out how to make a space in which you can be the kind of writer you want to be, especially if, like me, you don’t tend to do the same thing twice. Readers and publishers don’t really like change – most of them would prefer you produced different versions of the same book over and over again. But if you do that you’re going to end up pigeonholed very quickly. So you need to keep moving, find new ways of doing things. My partner, Mardi McConnochie, sometimes says that being a writer is like being a shark, and if you stop swimming you’ll drown. I think there’s more than a little bit of truth in that.
You’re a critic, you write novels, and you’re also an editor. How do these separate ways of being a writer interact? Are the novels at the heart of your project or is there a symbiotic relationship between these different practices?
I’m not sure I have anything so grand as a project! But when you’re working on something you’re usually reading around it and thinking about it too. That said, I think that for many years I felt like I had these parallel but somehow disconnected careers as a writer and as a reader and critic. When I started blogging about ten years ago I found that for the first time they fitted together somehow, and that was a really important moment for me. But I think if you asked me which lies at the centre of what I do I’d say it’s the fiction, or perhaps the reading. I’d also probably say that despite the outward differences between my books there’s actual a lot of continuity between them, and the sorts of things they’re exploring.
Your first novel was published in 1997. How much have things changed for writers since then? Do you think young novelists have the same concerns you had when you were trying to get Wrack published 20 years ago?
In a lot of ways I think it’s tougher now for younger novelists than it was when I was starting out. Back then there was a real sense of possibility around Australian writing, and the generation of us who came out of that – people like Christos Tsiolkas, Delia Falconer, Charlotte Wood, Georgia Blain, Luke Davies, Malcolm Knox and so on – were lucky enough to get to ride that wave for a while. There are also so many more people writing, especially given there are so many fewer readers. Certainly when I was first writing, the idea that you would go to university and study writing was still pretty alien, and it certainly wasn’t something I wanted to do. Now you have an enormously professionalised structure that pushes people into writing. All these kids who are 18 and decide they’re going to be writers, they go off to university and study writing. That might be a good thing or a bad thing or maybe neither – it depends what day you ask me. But it does mean that although the barriers to actual publication are lower, it also means the chances of real success are much lower. And it’s also a lot tougher to make a living: as they say, when it comes to advances five thousand is the new fifty thousand.
But at the same time it seems to me there’s now a highly supportive and collaborative community around younger writers that simply didn’t exist when I was young. It might be that my generation were all slightly more lone wolfy by nature, but it’s also that the literary scene, didn’t really extend much further than the occasional reading in a pub, and there certainly wasn’t the extremely networked community or festival circuit you see today.
I also think the assumptions that guide younger writers have changed a lot as a result of the globalising of the cultural economy. That means that the generation of writers who are coming to prominence at the moment – many of whom are stunningly good – just assume it’s possible to pitch a piece to The New Yorker, which isn’t something that would even have occurred to me or my contemporaries 20 years ago. That sense they inhabit an international community is new, and not something I remember feeling. We all felt we were Australian writers for good or ill, and that meant being engaged in constant battle to get offshore. Younger writers seem to have somehow leapfrogged those anxieties, which is fantastic.
What do you think that writers need to keep writing? What underwrites or undermines career sustainability for writers? How do you get to your fifth novel?
I was talking about this with a friend the other day and he was saying that when you’re starting out you imagine you’re going to be a great artist, but by the time you’re five novels in those fantasies have fallen away, and what you want is to be able to write the best book you can and feel it’s found some kind of engagement in the world. He was joking, or sort of joking, but it’s also at least partly true. In order to keep going you need to be able to maintain the belief that you’re doing good work and that the work matters in some way. Most of that has got to come from within – but it’s also extremely difficult to sustain that sort of self-belief if there’s nobody at the other end who seems to think what you’re doing is worthwhile.
So I think the first thing you need is a healthy reading culture, and some sense you’re writing into a culture where what you’re producing matters in some way. Because there comes a point when you think, why am I working so hard for so little return on something no one cares about? To prevent that happening, I think you need a culture that wants what you’re producing. And that’s shown in various ways I suspect. Some of them are financial, some of them are things like being reviewed. Reviews matter a lot to writers – in that somebody noticed what you did, and engaged with it.
In terms of that engagement, when Clade came out I was very struck by the difference between the reviews it received from literary reviewers and the reviews it received from science fiction reviewers. It was fascinating because the things that engaged them and frustrated them were often quite different, especially when it came to certain techniques that are common in science fiction but not elsewhere about using telling and infodumps. But what was really exciting and often really moving was the degree to which the book seemed to have engaged – and affected – people from both worlds, as well as a lot of general readers. I don’t think I’d realised how much it mattered to have people say they loved the book, or to say it had made them think, but it really did.
So there are parallel critical cultures, which don’t necessarily speak to each other?
Yes. And that was interesting to me. I don’t think they’re antagonistic at all. In spite of the constant anxiety that the critical culture is being dumbed down, I don’t see a lot of evidence of that. You only have to look at the work of critics like James Ley, Delia Falconer, Geordie Williamson or Felicity Plunkett and Anwen Crawford to name just a few to see there’s terrific critical writing going on at present.
Well there’s a lot of anxiety at the moment about critical culture in Australia, about the decline in mainstream media reviewing. How astute do you think this is?
I think it is a debate that is carried on in complete isolation of what’s actually on the page. You go to the mainstream papers and you’ve got a bunch of really good people writing for them. Not all of them are necessarily in perfect form every day, but it’s unusual not to find several excellent reviews in the weekend papers. But I also think the debate about criticism is carried on without reference to the fact that we have a media environment in which there are only a couple of outlets paying reviewers. Eight hundred to a thousand words is the norm. I’d love to be writing 2000 word reviews for The Guardian – but we don’t get to do that. But even allowing for the restrictions of the local media market the standards of book reviewing in Australia are generally pretty high.
I’m also pretty wary of the argument that Australian reviewers aren’t tough enough. After all, what does that mean? We should be cruel? Or not try to engage with what the author intended? And anyway, as soon as somebody does criticise a book, people go out of their collective minds.
For what it’s worth I think the problem is part of a deeper issue with Australian culture across the board, which is that we are almost incapable of distinguishing criticism and debate from personal attack. It’s a problem that cuts both ways. Not only are we lousy at criticising something or somebody without attacking them personally, we’re almost incapable of interpreting criticism without treating it as a personal attack.
Literary fiction is often posed as a privileged category that trumps genre fiction, that trumps the so-called middlebrow. The responses we’ve had to discussions about middlebrow on the SRB suggest that this point of encounter between art and commerce is absolutely incendiary. It was surprising to me to see how much of that response presumed a tension between art and commerce. As a critic and a novelist, do you see that tension as a real one? You see commercial success as a stigma?
I’d quite like to be successful in that way! I don’t know that I do see a real tension between literariness and the market. I think perhaps once I might have said that the notion of literary was constructed in opposition to the market, but I’m not sure I think that anymore. The reality is that since Gutenberg, writing has existed in a symbiotic relationship with the market and the economic factors that structure it, and that’s shaped not just what gets written but the kinds of things we write: there are no novels without printers to print them and literate audiences to consume them, pulp fiction came about because paper was cheap and disappeared when paper become more expensive after the second world war. And the fact of the matter is that stuff that’s really popular doesn’t tend to be difficult and very difficult stuff doesn’t tend to find a huge audience. Which is unsurprising, really. Although at the same time I think it’s important to be aware of the degree to which the market shapes what gets published and what gets read.
But I’m also pretty wary of glib generalisations and a lot of the assumptions embedded in the way we use and understand the terminology. I think it’s becoming less common, but the lazy opposition between genre and literature annoys me intensely, as does the conflation of genre and generic. And I heartily dislike the term ‘literary fiction’, and the idea that it’s somehow beyond genre, and bravely assaying the new. As far as I’m concerned all books are a combination of a kind of R&D and crowd pleasing – and some of them have more R&D and some of them have more crowd pleasing but they’re all doing a bit of both.
At a more personal level I do sometimes wonder why literary critics and book reviewers are so uncomfortable writing about more popular and commercial work, because it’s not a discomfort you see in other art forms. Take television critics, for instance: they’re perfectly comfortable talking about bad television, and do it with great sophistication and often tease out all sorts of unexpected complexities. So why can’t we do the same with popular fiction? Why is it we lack the language and the conceptual tools to say interesting things about it?
All that said, I’ve become increasingly perplexed by the production of literary celebrity – and frustrated by the way certain writers get hyped in New York and London and that hype is then processed entirely uncritically into a sense of their significance that has almost nothing to do with what’s on the page. I suspect I’m particularly aware of these dynamics because as an Australian writer you’re always an outside observer on some level.
Let’s talk about Clade and the politics of climate. On one level this is a novel that is very interested in the consequences of current and recent political decisions on climate and environmental policy. How comfortable are you in the role of social commentator?
I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the idea of being an advocate, but with this book I’ve been very aware of the expectation that I’m also expected to speak for the environment more generally because of it. There’s a level at which I’m okay with that: these issues are incredibly important and incredibly urgent, so I’m pleased if by writing the book I’ve helped create a space where people can think about them and discuss them, and if I change just one person’s mind I suppose I’ve succeeded. But at the same time assuming that role makes me a bit uneasy. That’s partly about a sort of squeamishness: I don’t want the book to be read as a piece of agitprop, because I didn’t write it that way and I don’t think it is. But it’s also because I’m really uncomfortable with novelists setting themselves up as moral figures, or the idea that novelists have any particular moral clarity or wisdom to dispense beyond what’s in their books. I suppose I’ve become less uncomfortable with all this as time has gone on, partly because I’ve come to accept that I did write the book because I wanted to get people to think about a series of things differently, and to try to find a way of talking about these issues without falling into the trap of writing about the apocalypse.
It seems to me that there is a kind of abdication of responsibility in saying that the world is going to end. I worry that we’ve kind of given up the idea that we have agency, that we can change the future. One thing I’ve found striking about people’s reactions to Clade is how many of them read its ending as hopeful, since in my mind it wasn’t quite that. Instead I wanted the book to push back against the passivity of so much of our thinking about climate change and the future by suggesting that amidst the grief and the loss there is still possibility, that the future isn’t set, it’s contingent, and our actions can influence it. And in an odd kind of way that seems to be quite a radical thing to say in our kind of political culture.
It seems to me the book meets the kind of challenge that you described in your recent essay on writing about climate: that it must address character, relationships and the continuity of relationships. That’s a movement away from the tropes of romanticism and the idea of nature as redemptive, isn’t it?
I don’t think there’s any question our relationship with the natural world is profoundly dysfunctional, both as a species and as individuals. The nature of our lives, the way we work, the way we live, our constant consumption, they’re both symptom and cause of a growing alienation from nature and the natural world. That affects us in all kinds of ways, but to take just one example, by having less and less to do with animals our imaginative lives become more and more impoverished, because animals offer us one of our richest stores of metaphor and awareness of otherness in the world. But at the same time I’m pretty uncomfortable with the idea that the solution to our problems is to get back to nature, because when it comes down to it we have to find ways of feeding and housing ten billion people, and that means the solutions are economic and technological, and involve large scale energy, better management of water and food, a more just relationship between rich and poor. Continuing to pretend we can go back to some kind of state of bucolic paradise is a way of denying the complexity of the problems, and I think that denial underpins a lot of the apocalyptic literature and the fantasies it embodies about somehow pressing a reset button and beginning again. There is no reset button. We have to deal with the world we have, and part of that process is about developing the imaginative and conceptual tools to make sense of a world in which we have so transformed the planet that it’s no longer possible to talk about the natural world without being aware of the human impact upon it. That’s a big part of what Clade was about. Whether that fits with most people’s conceptions of what environmental advocacy looks like I don’t know.
Let’s move to the role of research in your work. All your books are obviously informed by a deep process of research, which is always something of a wasteful endeavour. Lots of research – but very little of it comes through in a final draft. How do you make space for this?
If I’m working on something I’m always reading around it and writing about things connected to it as a way of working through what I think. I suppose there’s a sense in which that’s a bit wasteful time-wise, but I think I’d probably be doing something like it whatever happened: I spend a lot of time arguing with myself and testing out ideas about things that interest me anyway. I suppose that’s particularly the case with Clade because I’ve been writing about and thinking about the environment and climate change for most of my adult life. But I also think it’s important not to make the mistake of thinking writing is a linear process. The fact we read from left to right, front to back often makes it look that way but it isn’t, it’s about gathering images and words and ideas that seem to connect or speak to each other. Then you try and fit them together, write bits, change bits, build the thing. I think that’s part of why people don’t understand how long it takes to write a book, to create something.
I know you have to pick up your kids quite soon – and before we wrap up I want to talk about kids. Female writers with kids always getting asked how do you do it? This is a question I don’t see asked so often of male writers. How has parenthood has shaped your writing practices? What does it take to make being a parent and a writer work?
Anne Enright once said she never knew a book as interesting as a child and although it’s a great line I also think it encapsulates something really important. Having kids is the most profound and transformative thing you can do, and if the choice is between experiencing that and writing a couple more books I know which I’d choose.
But at the same time it has a massive impact on your work, and the way you imagine yourself as an individual and a writer. Some of that’s incredibly enriching and fulfilling, but you also get brought up hard against your shortcomings as a parent and as a human being on an almost daily basis. But I suspect the thing most people without kids don’t understand, and which I didn’t understand until I had kids, is how fucking relentless it is. It just never stops. And you think it will become easier as they get older but they just become differently difficult. That’s great in lots of way but it does mean that you’ve got to adjust and learn to write differently. You become a lot more efficient. And it teaches you a sense of proportion by forcing you to be much clearer in your head about what you want to do, and why you think it matters. That means it’s much harder to be precious about the importance of what you do, but it also makes you a lot more determined about finishing things, and making sure they achieve the things you wanted them to.