DEFENDING KEY PRINCIPLES:
an interview with Jeff Sparrow
You’ve overseen a critical transition in what is arguably Australia’s most important literary journal—moving Overland from an exclusively ink & paper operation to a vigorous digital presence. You’ve made that seem a natural metamorphosis. Could you talk about what’s gone into negotiating these radically changing years.
A ‘little magazine’ like Overland is, more than anything, about ideas. So embracing a technology that facilitated the dissemination of those ideas in ways that had never been possible before seemed like a no-brainer.
In practical terms, however, there were some immediate issues. New formats don’t supersede old formats – at least, not initially – so much as sit on top of them, and the tendency is thus for each new platform to add more and more work. Abandoning paper was never going to be a short term option for Overland, which meant that the time put into digital publishing was simply additional labour.
So coming to terms with that was difficult.
On the other hand, the Overland website has really confirmed how much affection there is for Overland as an institution. If we’ve been able to do anything new, it’s because so many people share the journal’s political and aesthetic goals.
It’s a poorly kept secret that Meanjin will soon transition to an entirely online form, abandoning the print medium altogether. With this move the prestige of the journal will come into question. While Overland has grown into a new environment, its roots still find purchase in the solid ground of print. I’m interested in what your thoughts are on Overland similarly cutting away its print form. It would certainly mean less work.
I don’t know what Meanjin’s plans are. But we see ourselves publishing in print for the foreseeable future, even as we embrace some new forms. Print on paper is still the most readable way to present long essays and fiction. It’s portable, it’s attractive, it’s accessible everywhere, and it lasts. Most writers still prefer it, as do the majority of readers.
At the same time, we are not sentimentalists. It is silly to pretend that the literary journal ten years down the track will look like the literary journal of today.
That being said, I think the printed page still has a few years left in it.
There are different kinds of motivation writers have. Some are more personally corrosive that others. Revolt seems to be at the centre of your work. Both in terms of an emotional response to the world being as fucked up as it is, as well as an innate rebellion. I’m wondering how it doesn’t wear you down.
On the contrary, writing prevents you from being worn down. What’s most corrosive about the twenty-first century is the prevailing sense of powerlessness, that feeling of being buffeted about by events entirely beyond your control. Terrible things happen and we all must suck them up. If it does nothing else, writing at least allows you to organise your thoughts about the world. And sometimes – not always, but sometimes – it can be an intervention.
I’m not a naturally fluent writer, nor am I one of those people who say they’re never happier than when at their desk. For me, writing’s always been slow and difficult. But the compensation is that it allows you to feel that you are responding to the world rather than simply being pummelled by it.
The fluent writer might be a myth. Great writing would be far more common if it wasn’t. Work of real value comes from a difficult, often painful, process of evolution, where a writer is struggling to develop both his understanding and craft. If writers don’t feel that process to be slow and difficult, it’s because they’ve begun recycling old thoughts. When was the last time you read something remarkable and what made it memorable to you? How difficult is it to find this kind of work for Overland? How often do you produce it personally?
Is fluency a myth? Maybe. But people do work in different ways and at different speeds, and I do know some writers who can produce very high quality prose very quickly.
I think if you’re talking about remarkable non-fiction, there’s a couple of different things to consider.
The first is ideas – the arguments that the essay (which is what we’re talking about with Overland) makes.
In a perverse way, radical political writers in this country have the advantage of working in opposition to a mainstream culture in which so much political journalism consists simply of the reiteration of commonly held prejudices (think of all the pieces explaining that Kevin Rudd was a political genius – and then, a few months later, all the pieces explaining that he was a political dunce). The narrowness of that consensus means that just about anyone who challenges, say, the notion of the free market as a divinely-ordained institution comes across as saying something startling and new.
But then, of course, there’s also the question of the writing itself. In a really good essay, it’s not just the argument that changes the way you see the world, for the prose itself works to make the reader think differently. And writing that operates on both levels like that is much harder to find.
You’ve written and published a number of books, been the editor of Overland for five years, overseeing critical growth and transformation, continue to publish articles in the major newspapers of the country, not to mention having had a stint as a radio host. You are also one of the few writers in the country that is able to live purely from the worth of your words. Most remarkably, you’ve accomplished that in opposition to our culture’s economic aspirations. All of this before the age of 40. It’s disingenuous to say you are not a fluent writer. Can you tell me what fluency would look like for you? Does a writer ever get to feel a sense of accomplishment or do we only ever get to keep grinding away at our own personal limitations?
What you say is very kind (especially about – ahem! – being under 40) but, as for living from my words, I’m in the same position as most Australian writers – I earn money from my day job (Overland) and then I write in my spare time. Which, I think, is how it’s always going to be.
About fluency, I wasn’t trying to make any particularly profound point. It’s simply that writing never feels easy to me, and always more about constant grind than bursts of inspiration. But, perhaps, as you suggest, that’s the case for everyone. Certainly, upon completion, all of my projects have ended up looking very different from how I imagined them.
No, I don’t think writing is very conducive to a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, in some respects, you couldn’t really design an activity more perfectly suited to fostering insecurities. Writing a book is all about communication, about relating with the social. Yet in order to get a book done, you need to spend a lot of time by yourself, staring at a computer, often to the exclusion of more normal social interactions.
That’s why public events with writers are often so very often odd, since they’re about expecting introverts and isolates to suddenly become raconteurs and performers.
One of the great promises of literature is liberation – socially, politically and personally. Do you still believe in that?
No. And I’m not sure that literature ever did promise that, did it? I would have thought that the conventional novel developed quite comfortably within the conventional order.
IMO, it’s important for political writers to be clear about what literature can and can’t do. Most novels and most poems effect very little in the way of political change. Books are not activism – at least not in any simple sense. If you want to intervene directly, you should write a pamphlet rather than a novel – and, indeed, there are times when you can argue that novelists need to do precisely that.
But it’s also true that literature can serve distinct purposes. It can, for instance, make you see the world in a different way. And there’s a political utility to that.
We were recently privileged to tour the Afghan activist Malalai Joya, who appears in Overland 204 and who spoke at some Overland events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. She is an extraordinary woman who, because she has spoken out against both the Taliban and the Karzai regime, now lives in extreme danger in Kabul. In between one of the MWF sessions, she told me that the book that most inspired her was Voynich’s The Gadfly, a novel she read over and over again. Now, when, in 1897, Voynick published her novel about Italian nationalist revolutionaries, could she ever have imagined its influence on an activist in Afghanistan? Of course not! That’s a good example of the subterranean ways political writing can make itself felt.
Liberation is often just rhetoric, but the vast majority of writers work for the duration of their careers with little recognition or financial reward. If we removed the money motive, most industries in this country would collapse overnight, but our own field would probably be undaunted. Writers might not use the word Liberation when trying to define why they foster this often bewildering desire to work towards an abstract literary goal, striving against ridiculously bad odds, making sacrifices all along the way, but perhaps it doesn’t matter what word we use. We don’t need to define that sense of necessity that keeps us writing.
Seeing ‘the world in a different way’ is an idea that we can provoke change in people. As far as I know, you’ve never published one piece of poetry or prose. Is this because ‘thinking’ about the world in a different way is what you’re most interested in? I’d suggest that what’s fundamental is how we ‘feel’ about the world and our place within it. Our ‘thinking’ is constructed around a primary emotional attitude. I think this is why we see a bunker intellectualism, where a warfare of ideas takes place across our media, but which rarely reaches entrenched positions. What are your thoughts on these ideas?
There’s a few different issues there.
I took your reference to literature and ‘liberation’ as a political point. That was the context for my response: that it’s easy for writers to have grandiose notions about what their work-in-progress will mean but, actually, meaningful political change comes about through the mass participation of ordinary people. It’s important, then, to maintain a certain modesty. Literature won’t liberate the people. The people will liberate themselves.
As for the relationship between thinking and feeling, yes, I agree: that is the area in which literature works, in which plays and novels and poems contribute to change.
I did, in fact, write short stories at one time. I just wasn’t much good at it, so I stopped.
In terms of entrenched positions and a warfare of ideas, I’d contend that there’s not enough of either. Obviously, one should be intellectually open. At the same time, any kind of political program depends on defending key principles – and what we’ve tended to see over the last decade is a retreat by liberal intellectuals from anything like liberalism. It shouldn’t, for instance, be difficult or controversial to assert that torture is wrong – and yet, in the course of the war on terror, there’s been a remarkable willingness by some so-called progressives to debate the circumstances under which ‘enhanced interrogations’ might be acceptable.
I started this interview by talking about what you’ve managed to do with Overland over the last few years. What’s been your greatest disappointment and what’s given you the greatest sense of achievement?
At our most recent launch, I quoted Walter Benjamin: ‘the work is the death mask of its conception’. You never achieve exactly what you wanted: it’s the nature of such things.
More specifically, I think we have a lot of work to do in prosecuting an argument about what political fiction in Australia might be like – indeed, even creating the environment where such an argument might take place.
In terms of achievements, well, we’re still here. And in an era that hasn’t been so kind to the Left, that’s something in and of itself. What’s more, we’re growing, both in circulation and influence. As an editorial team, we’re much clearer about what we’re looking for: we know when we find an essay that seems ‘Overland-like’. We’ve been fortunate enough to make contact with a fantastic group of people: writers, of course, but also editors, bloggers, designers and so on. In its own modest way, Overland has become something of a hub for writers who are interested in activism and activists who are interested in writing. And that, I think, is really the point.