Vox: Sunil Badami

Posted on August 21, 2011 by in Verity La Forum

 

As a writer – albeit an unpublished writer, a putative novelist – statements about “the death of the novel” infuriate me. The first statement, especially, usually spouted by the kind of smug, unimaginative, untalented university literary theorist or cultural studies academic, searching desperately for something to say in time for their next ARC application or whatever pointless literary theoretical conference they’ve managed to wangle, especially enrages me.

A slew of books by flashy, quotable academics like Elif Batuman or David Shields, pronounce fiction obsolete or suggesting that creative writing degrees are inferior to literary theory ones. Obscure and unreadable “ficto-critics” use wild and incomprehensible punctuation to distract from the sloppy scholarship and awful writing that defines their “experimental” work, asserting that they can offer “new writing [and/or] aesthetic strategies” that supersede fiction, which they regard as obsolete, even if nobody reads their work – even, from the look of it, they themselves.

For such carpetbaggers, literature is always in a “state of emergency” – although, it must be added, not so much of an emergency that the usual 16 weeks’ holiday and two overseas conferences can’t still be taken – and readers compliant in a massive system of “co-option” in which “the self” is “subsumed” into some great, capitalist “hegemony.” Which could just as easily describe most university humanities departments, focused on “rationalisation” and “service delivery” and unwilling to countenance any other opinion than the usual gnomic French suspects.

As Jonathon Franzen points out in his essay, ‘Mr Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books’, “One frequent problem with the literature of emergency is that it doesn’t age well,” and these frequent pronunciations seem to be the apocalyptic cries of people who – most tellingly in Shields’ and Batuman’s cases – often seem to be failed novelists. Salman Rushdie didn’t seem to think the novel was dead when he’d written Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses – in fact, in the case of the latter, it had taken on a terrifying life of its own outside his authorial control – rather, he made his famous polemic announcement when nobody had really read any of his books for years (interesting, too, that he now considers television to be the “new literature,” having just written the screenplay for the upcoming miniseries of Midnight’s Children.

It seems the sky keeps falling in, year after year, with the introduction of each new technology – or the failure of each new Jeremiah to come up with anything beyond their own failing imaginations. Even Jean-Luc Godard has come out of creative seclusion to pronounce film is dead, and the future is cut-and-paste YouTube mashups.

Searching for something to justify the airfare to whatever conference is on in Bologna that year, many cultural studies academics will alight on whatever new, gimmicky, pop-culture phenomenon arises, applying outmoded, obfuscatory post-modernist theories to Buffy! Twilight! Interactive media! Computer-generated poetry algorhythms! the ironic, wanly funny mental gymnastics (and accompanying self-written Wikipedia articles) only reflecting a shrill and desperate desire for relevance that only being read can bring.

It’s a similar fallacy to assume that every new technology somehow makes everything else obsolete.

Books are an obsolete technology, no doubt about that. They’ve been obsolete since their inception, if you measure how little progress has been made on “the book” as compared to what seems to constantly be going on with “the mobile phone.” Yet nobody pronounced the book dead with the advent of cinema, radio or television – in fact, book readership rose exponentially in the United Kingdom between the wars, despite the burgeoning popularity of the “Golden Age of Hollywood.”

So why on earth do we think the internet is somehow going to kill it?

In fact, the book’s very obsolescence makes it even more vital in this tweet-drenched, status-updated world, where information is quickly discovered a hoax or publicity stunt, where everything is tweeted and blogged into logorrhoeaic streams of data, filtered of much meaning and any connection.

When you read on an iPad, for example, you can just read the book. But many e-books now have a number of useful tools to help read them: annotation tools; formatting options; and hypertext links to look up particular words. You can spend hours getting the font and font size and page colour just right; and worst of all, as you read, you can look up whatever word or concept you may find momentarily confusing. If you’re focussed, you’ll look it up and return to the whatever you were reading. But we are less and less focussed nowadays, with emails and pop-up ads and alert boxes and instant messages and status bars all clamouring for our increasingly limited attentions. And we’re likely – as I often do – to fall into what I call the “Wikislide,” in which one link leads to another link which leads to another and then another and then … like an alzheimer’s patient lost in a supermarket, I’m not sure what I was looking for, nor what brought me here in the first place.

Even if you are focussed and you can return to whatever you were reading, something is broken in that moment – which is why I hardly ever read Will Self novels, because the act of looking away (to look a word up, in his case), breaks the intimate contract between writer and reader (or really, work and reader) in which imagination on both sides knits together a vision that filters and shuts out the press and thrum of the world outside. And looking up a word in the middle of that knitting together only exposes the stray threads.

And reading on the internet is even worse, making us skim, rather than read; look, rather than see; hear, rather than listen. As Peter Hodges points out: ‘I tend to skim-read on the internet. “Real” books (meaning books I can work my way through by physically turning pages and that won’t disappear when I press a button), newspapers and journals (similarly defined) are required for serious reading.’

Reading and writing a novel are as close as I get to meditation: that shutting out of the world, and most importantly, of losing myself in another person’s life. Alain de Botton once remarked in his “novel of ideas” The Romantic Movement that some people read for escapism; others for self-discovery. But I think that for the engaged reader, there’s an element of both.

When I read a well-written, engaging novel, in which the characters aren’t trapped by the plot or buried by the language, in which these devices are as thin a meniscus between my empathetic imagination and the characters’ lives and problems, then I don’t merely forget the trials or worries of my own life, but more importantly, I forget myself. And if the writing’s really good, I discover that the characters live on, long after the last page is turned and I forget the details of the plot: I see them in others around me, and most importantly, I see them and their flaws, their fears, their frailties, in myself.

It’s the same when I’m writing, really writing: if I concentrate on the characters, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, I forget the plot-holes and prepositions and adverbs and most importantly, me, and the writing – suddenly free of my ego and thought – feels its way into my subconscious, and writes itself. And if it makes me feel that way, there’s a good chance it will make you feel that way too.

I often discover, after I’ve finished writing, that those characters have done things I could never have expected or planned on, acting in the same contradictory, confusing ways I do, revealing more truth in their flaws, fears and frailties than I ever could be brave enough to, even writing a journal or blog.

Reading and writing are a reprieve for me from myself, from my petty neuroses and pointless worries, from the reverberating whorl of self-commentary and thought and chatter that fills my head day and night, the noise of it competing with the car alarms and advertisements and competing voices on the TV or radio or internet.

But most importantly, that reprieve from myself, that opportunity to lose myself, also offers me a chance to find myself in the pleasures and regrets of the people about whom I’m reading or writing. In their frailties and flaws and fears I find my own.

That’s the wonder of literature: that in losing ourselves, we can find ourselves.

But it’s a spell that can only be spun with dedication and concentration, and that dedication and concentration can only be developed with practice. I write every day – partly because I’m on strict deadlines this year, but mainly so I don’t have to think about the writing and I can concentrate on the characters.

And in the same way, I have become a faster, better, more perceptive reader because, although I don’t consider myself a fast, good, perceptive or well-read reader, I have read so much for so long that I can read a book in one sitting, reading up to four or five books a week. Creative writing students are notorious for not reading, for fear of their work being “contaminated,” but the more I read, the more I write, and the more I write, the more I read. I can’t say I really read for pleasure anymore – years of reviewing and writing will do that – but everything I read informs my work: whether non-fiction during research, or more importantly, fiction during writing. The flaws in the glass are as important as the glimmers, and they all swirl, like half-remembered dreams and snatches of childhood memory, to ferment, unseen, in the deep delvèd earth of my subconscious to hopefully pop, sparkling, into my work in ways I – as opposed to all those confident albeit incomprehensible pronouncements by creative writing academics who’ve never actually written a novel – couldn’t quite tell you.

There are as many disconsolations and disappointments to reading as there are to writing, but the rare pleasures and successes make those other imposters disappear. I am just as disappointed by reading many polished, bloodless, mannered, calculating, prize-winning creative writing course novels as I am by what I write most days struggling through the mire of my first draft.

But in a way, the relentless mediocrity of these novels inspire me to write something good, almost as much as the great novels I’ve loved have done. Still, I can’t remember I ever read – much less wanted to read – any of the books that have won major literary prizes in the last few years. It seems they’re talking to judging committees comprised of the very academics who consider fiction obsolete or not challenging enough, rather than speaking to me. And I think the low sales of many of these prize-winning novels speaks volumes about their relevance to many readers. Like Franzen, I don’t only to be entertained, but I don’t expect to be bored or harangued either. Art isn’t measured in how many or how few sales it brings, nor in the way it’s made, but in the way it makes you feel: the art is when, without knowing quite how, the work has made you feel and think without you realising it – or, as in the worst academic writing, pointing out just how it did it.

Of course, as in all cultural production, publishing is an uneasy relationship between art and commerce: in an age when the publishing model seems drawn on the lines of the music or film industry, you’re only as good as your last book, and if you want to keep writing, you need to ensure people will buy it.

But interestingly, just like the music industry, the publishing industry is apparently in big trouble. Go to any publishers’ drinks and everybody is drowning their sorrows. Big chains are closing, the net is driving down profits, nobody knows what will happen next.

Funnily enough, when I consider how many times I’ve been sacked from mindless, pointless jobs I took to keep my mind free for writing, when I think about how little I make from it, and when I sit down to write without a clear idea of what’s going to happen (or when I press send to my editors), I have to ask: what’s new? Writers have been living like that as long as we can remember, and certainly long before “territorial copyright” and “literary estates.” The great writers of the past, right through the “Golden Age of Classic Fiction” in the Nineteenth Century, wrote without copyright, royalties, creative writing degrees, literary prizes or literature board grants. So why do we need such protections and assurances to write when Shakespeare, Cervantes and Gogol didn’t?

They continued to write, even as unscrupulous publishers underpaid them (if at all), often in penury and desperation: the greatest, most quoted writer after Confucius in Chinese literature, Cao Xue Qin, wrote in obscurity for forty years before his work was published forty years after his death.

Nobody who really writes does so for the money: when they say art is priceless, they mean its value comes without a price that research outputs or ERA rankings or marketing campaigns or highly publicised advances can ever quantify. If writing, as even the rich, famous and prolific Simenon – who resented not winning the Nobel, Goncourt or any other major literary prize – is “a vocation of sorrow,” why do so many people want to write?

Of course many, myself included, started with Rowlingian dreams of fame and fortune, and many, like Simenon, do so for critical acclaim and rich prizes. But I, at least, write for a prize far more precious than that awarded by a committee. I don’t write for the money, much less the therapy, but, like E M Forster, for connection.

I am all too aware of the irony that I must shut myself away from the real people around me to immerse myself in the lives of imaginary people, and that I can only really connect to other people who must shut themselves from the real people around them to immerse themselves in the lives of those same imaginary people; and that our connection, through those characters’ lives, will always be a vicarious one. But it’s one of the most powerful ones we can imagine as well.

As David Foster Wallace noted:

“Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”

While I love some poetry, much music, all sex and a little religion, I’d be prepared to go even further and say that unlike the many kinetic art forms that have captured the popular attention (if not imagination) recently, with all their colour and movement and sound and fury, such as blockbuster films, reality TV, celebrity memoirs, news aggregators and blogs, literature is the only art that can definitively place you within another person’s consciousness, without them even being aware of it. It’s not the cheap entrapment of looking at the footage from a hidden camera on Big Brother, which, like much film, is effective, making us see the consequence of an action. No, literature is affective, making us feel and imagine that consequence, long before its eventuality.

If action is edited speech (I’m going to do this, I say, and then I do it, contingent on the constraints the world places on my intention); and speech is edited thought (I think this, but I reframe the thought to make it comprehensible or acceptable to my listeners); then thought is edited feeling (I feel this, but I edit it to order the sequence of feelings logically). And out of feeling, we educe belief, which is the source of action. I can tell someone what to do, and they may do it if I offer an incentive or punishment; but if I can make them believe, I can make them do anything.

And isn’t that what freedom is? To feel you could do anything – even if, of course, you don’t always. The right to write, the right to read, the right to imagine. Like Foster Wallace, I believe that “the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” And like Franzen observed in his powerful and moving masterpiece, Freedom:

“This is what was keeping me awake at night,” Walter said. “This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV — there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement. There’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”

Like a cultural studies academic spouting inanities about “hermeneutics” and “aesthetics” in their self-written Wikipedia article or ARC grant application, the internet is comprised of much the same egotistical bells and whistles: what Franzen called in the seminal ‘Why Bother? (The Harper’s Essay)’ “the unfettered testimony of the self”. The anonymity of blog comments pages and chat rooms is not the same as the egolessness of real reading and writing: rather, it’s a mask to hide behind as you spew trollish cruelties or offer your inchoate thoughts on anything and everything: Masterchef, other drivers, the inanities and trivialities of life.

What is interesting is that in the last few years – Franzen, Foster Wallace and a few others (like Blake Morrison, Christos Tsoilkas or Fiona McGregor) aside – “literary” fiction has been fixated on the historical. Some commentators, like Mark Lawson, have suggested that the prominence of historical fiction on literary prize shortlists reflects a timidity or unwillingness by modern authors to engage with the complex problems, issues and realities of the modern world, a failure of imagination, a retreat to the safe distance of the past, and a disingenuous desire to appropriate the literary weight of the classic Nineteenth Century canon.

Given a choice between an historical novel and popular history, readers choose Peter Fitzsimons hands down over Kate Grenville. As the historical novelist Wendy James observed in Meanjin, ‘Fiction, it is constantly lamented, is being outsold, outread and pretty much outdone by “reality”’

Franzen also laments the paucity of contemporary social-realist novels, similar to those written by Dickens, Balzac or, in an Australian context, Kylie Tennant, Ruth Park or Xavier Herbert. Yet, when writers do take on the “state of the nation” or the zeitgeist, their books, like The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Slap, The Corrections and Freedom, storm to the top of the bestseller lists. We have to lose ourselves in the lives of others to find ourselves, but they have to be like us – and the measure of classic literature is how, despite the distance of time and space and culture and even language, they are: whether a thrice-widowed middle-aged woman who hides deep sadness behind her bawdy stories or a bored provincial French doctor’s wife or a Russian conman buying dead souls.

The “canon” is not a fixed list: like language and society, it’s constantly shifting, and as old books get forgotten, or perplexingly praised ones eventually sink to the obscurity they deserve, new novels rise up to take their places. A common mistake of many historical novelists is the suggestion that “fiction completes history.” Apart from infuriating historians, this fallacy doesn’t reflect the fact that historical fiction, no matter how mimetically faithful, cannot ever completely capture the feelings or perspectives of a past period or culture, these often being influenced by the feelings and perspectives of the time in which it is written (for example, would Fagan be as obviously Semitic if Great Expectations were written now?.

When we try to know the past, we turn to history. But when we seek to understand it, we turn to the literature of that time. We can read about English workhouses in any number of historical texts, filled with statistics and scraps of official correspondence and even personal testimony, but when we read Dickens, we find ourselves not just in the workhouse, but in Oliver’s shoes.

With Catherine Deveny’s inane tweets and Anthony Wiener’s penis being automatically archived in the Library of Congress it is easy to say that it could be the key artefact for a new archaeology. After all, obscene graffiti was preserved in Pompeii and it is an invaluable artefact outside the official record. But given the choice between ‘Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!’ and Catallus or Petronius, I know what I’d prefer.

If “literary fiction” is doddering, it’s not just about the technology. After all, as noted above, the novel has been pretty much obsolete since its inception, and apart from new and improved production and distribution methods (from movable type to e-books to print-on-demand), it is and always will be – despite the unintelligible prancing of ficto-critics – words on pages about people’s lives.

What makes literature so great is its essential democracy, especially now. It doesn’t matter whether you read it in a first edition or a paperback or a photocopied samizdat furtively handed out under the table, whether it’s on an iPad or a Kindle or on Project Gutenberg, because the words will still be there, and if the writing’s good, the characters will live on inside you long after you forget the details of the plot. We still call a collection of digitised MP3 files an “album,” even if few of us even have a phonograph player. We still call a collection of digitised JPEG files taken on our mobile phones a “camera roll,” even if no film was involved. And we’ll keep calling those words about people’s lives “books” or “novels” long after paper is a distant memory.

Much has been made of self-published writers selling “millions” of books without an agent or publisher. Could this be the future, where writers can make clear profit without having to sell their souls to avaricious agents and callous publishers who don’t respect their art?

I have to cry a resounding NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Have you read any of these “million-sellers”? They are, frankly, not just trivial entertainment: they’re shit. The worst kind of pretentious, badly written, woefully edited, derivative, evanescent, puerile logorrhea, not much more than fan-fiction or Roman brothel graffiti, sold for 99c or given away for free to increase Google or Amazon page rankings. Stuff that has to be self-published because even publishers of Lee Childs or Bryce Courtenay must have their limits (and is, at the end of the day, published anyway, even if only because a service provider is allowing it to be stored on their servers or publicised on their site).

And for all their bravado about going their own way, most such “million-selling” authors – none of whom I’ve ever heard of, but probably because I’m not a teenage girl devastated there won’t be more Harry Potters or Twilights coming out – jump at the validation and money a “conventional” publishing deal can offer. It seems their independence is merely a marketing ploy. And one has to ask: if they actually dared to charge retail prices for their verbiage, would anybody buy it?

Having said that, just as a medium being obsolete doesn’t make it irrelevant, a medium being new doesn’t make it trivial. Comic books become graphic novels; nickelodeons give rise to The Birth of a Nation; Pong evolves into LA Noir. It’s interesting to note, isn’t it, that what makes them art is narrative: a story. And if there’s anything that can do that well, without the distraction of banner ads and hyperlinks and 3D, it’s the novel. We may find myriad ways of telling a story, but whatever my enjoyment of other forms, nothing can beat a novel.

As Franzen notes:

“Fiction is the most fundamental human art. Fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves. Fiction is also conservative and conventional, because the structure of its market is relatively democratic (novelists make a living one book at a time, bringing pleasure to large audiences), and because a novel asks for ten or twenty hours of solitary attentiveness from each member of its audience. You can walk past a painting fifty times before you begin to appreciate it. You can drift in and out of a Bartok sonata until its structures dawn on you, but a difficult novel just sits there on your shelf unread — unless you happen to be a student, in which case you’re obliged to turn the pages of Woolf and Beckett. This may make you a better reader.

“[However], to wrest the novel away from its original owner, the reader, requires strenuous effort from theoreticians. And once literature and its criticism become co-dependent the fallacies set in.

“For example, the Fallacy of Capture, as in the frequent praise of Finnegans Wake for its “capturing” of human consciousness, or in the justification of J R’s longueurs by its “capture” of an elusive “postwar American reality”; as if a novel were primarily an ethnographic recording, as if the point of reading fiction were not to go fishing but to admire somebody else’s catch. Or the Fallacy of the Symphonic, in which a book’s motifs and voices are described as “washing over” the reader in orchestral fashion; as if, when you’re reading J R, its pages just turn themselves, words wafting up into your head like arpeggios. Or the Fallacy of Art Historicism, a pedagogical convenience borrowed from the moneyed world of visual art, where a work’s value substantially depends on its novelty; as if fiction were as formally free as painting, as if what makes The Great Gatsby and O Pioneers! good novels were primarily their technical innovations. Or the epidemic Fallacy of the Stupid Reader, implicit in every modern “aesthetics of difficulty,” wherein difficulty is a “strategy” to protect art from cooptation and the purpose of this art is to “upset” or “compel” or “challenge” or “subvert” or “scar” the unsuspecting reader; as if the writer’s audience somehow consisted, again and again, of Charlie Browns running to kick Lucy’s football; as if it were a virtue in a novelist to be the kind of boor who propagandizes at friendly social gatherings.

“If you’re having a good time with a novel, you’re a dupe of the post-industrial System; if you still identify with characters, you need to retake Postmodernism 101.”

Most writers I love and respect don’t have the sniffy, snooty pretensions of literary theory, which determines a work’s value in such abstruse ways. In fact, like me, they enjoy a wide variety of different narrative forms: Michael Chabon celebrates comics in The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; David Mitchell pays homage to science fiction in Cloud Atlas; Haruki Murukami writes to the riffs of cool jazz in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. What unites all of these is a sense of story, and it’s these writers great talents that raise such once-seemingly trivial entertainments to profundity.

Most writers are and should be magpies with very catholic tastes, reading and listening and observing voraciously and indiscriminately. It’s in the output they must be discriminating: not of their subject or of their readers (like all those unread Gaddises and Azuls) but of what they create.

And that’s the problem with blogs and tweets and Facebook updates and unedited tracts that infest the murkier corners of the iBooks shop. They are, indeed, the “unfettered testimony of the Self,” supremely and solely concerned with a narcissistic self-regard. How many hits? How many likes? How many followers? How many comments? All not so much interactivity as a constant, desperate, needy demand for attention, and a self-absorbed sense of entitlement that the “consumer” is always right, turning readers into “stakeholders” who have as much right to determine the story as the writer.

Much is made of such “interactivity.” Why can’t we do as we wish in any narrative, just as we do in Second Life? Some older readers may remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books, the vanguard of such “interactivity” (leading to the cumshot compilation, the half-listened playlist, Shields’s preposterous “collage” of other writers’ work). Although you could choose between two alternatives, and there were multiple ways of working your way through the adventure, making for multiple narratives, you were still only given the choices offered. Ditto seemingly “free world” video games or comments on blogs, which are only published if the moderator sees fit. As Alfred Hitchcock once observed, a good director (or writer, or story teller) asks the questions they think the audience will ask.

Writing is a constant process of such anticipation, with the narrative offering questions the writer knows the answer to for the audience to keep wondering about. Narrative is the imaginative line connecting plot point to plot point, making a story that will connect with the reader.

The mistake much academic writing and bad art makes is to offer profound answers to complicated problems, asserting that it is addressing the world and everything in it, when on closer inspection, it’s usually merely about the author themselves. Tracy Emin’s tent is really about Tracy Emin. Despite my recent admonishment by a creative writing academic that “everyone has a story to tell” I still believe not everyone with a story has the ability to tell it.

Rather than speaking to us, such bad art talks at us, one eye on the critic over our shoulder, proclaiming its importance in the catalogue notes, reminding us what it’s about, rather than letting us find out for ourselves.

But great art only offers us simple (albeit troubling) questions about us, our lives, our world, inspiring us to discover whatever answer best helps us understand it. Carravaggio offers us a bowl of fruit, and in looking closer, we see not just the fecundity of life, but the inevitable decay of all flesh: in a dusty fig, we see a worm, and in that small detail, we can grasp in a moment beyond words the sweetness and sadness and precarious preciousness of existence. And we needn’t know a thing about Caravaggio, much less who he ever fucked, to feel its effect.

Now, that’s interactivity! Not the random gimmickry of weird punctuation or randomly generated noise but a conversation – albeit silent and vicarious – between reader and work. Not the pretentious, bloodless, riskless creative writing course writing that passes for modern literary fiction, which seems to harangue us with its lumpen, affected, theory-infected pose, like a kind of long short story with all the adverbs removed and the feeling leached out, an interminable grant application or monotonous monologue to literary prize committees, only occasionally deigning to turn from its tight literary party circle to acknowledge the reader, standing meekly outside, before it checks its hair in the banquette mirror.

No: great writing, great novels, are out in the cold with us, holding us close, offering us another smoke or their coat, laughing and crying with us, whispering and shouting, digressing, losing the train of thought and recovering it with a flourish, confessing secrets and making us see, in the foggy window, not just the wankers making fools of themselves inside, but in our misty breath on the yellow panes, ourselves. What do you think? The great novel asks. How do you feel?

(As the wonderful, thoughtful Marjorie Garber – a literary theory academic of all people – observes in her heartening book The Use and Abuse of Literature, ‘literature is a form of writing that offers unanswered (and potentially unanswerable) questions. Literary language is rife with figures of speech, allusions to other writings and characters facing ambiguous moral decisions… the absence of answers or determinate meanings is exactly the set of qualities that make a passage or a work literary.’)

Of all the people that make writing great, the least important is the writer: in fact, in the more you can see of the writer, the less you’ll see of the writing, and even less of the characters, and nothing of yourself.

That’s why we consider great novels, the books that really touched us and made us fall in love with them, to be as dear and cherished as friends, sharing with us their deepest secret shames and follies, and in so doing, allowing us to acknowledge – albeit silently, secretly, our own. Those books come with us when we move, they are shared with new lovers and good friends, and we carry them around with us not only in our book boxes but in our hearts. Great literature is and always will be about people and as long as people exist and feel and believe, they will always return to great literature, no matter what form it takes. Whatever postmodernists and critical theorists may continue to feebly and incomprehensibly assert in those empty lecture theatres at that conference in Lausanne – if anyone, even whoever’s in the auditorium at the time, is actually listening anymore – the medium is even less important than the author. All that matters are the people who read a novel and the people in it.

No doubt I’ll be accused of Luddism or anti-intellectualism. I’m an inveterate gadget geek, and a very early adapter of certain technologies which have, in certain ways, improved my life greatly. There are many new opportunities and possibilities offered by the digital age, as Leo Benedictus observed in a recent essay on the joys of e-reading. Perhaps, rather than losing local libraries or bookshops, we’ll all be getting our own, carried around in iPads. And there’s no doubt that many great, now out of print books are available because of the great work of Project Gutenberg. Words and people and places and times ideas and feelings that might have once been lost forever.

Yet we shackle ourselves to this technology. If the sat-nav loses the signal, we’re lost. If our mobile gets lost, we have no way of remembering numbers we once would have. If there’s a blackout, we start panicking about our wi-fi signal and how we’ll be able to check our emails. How did we manage even ten years ago, when hardly anyone had a mobile phone or internet connection? As Clinton Caward observed in his recent novel, Love Machine, “The more people rely on the machine for human connectivity, the less they need [it], even though that’s the desire that leads them to the machine.” Everywhere, it seems, we are free to check our Facebook status, but only as long as we’re chained to the wi-fi signal.

As Malcolm Knox points out in his wonderful essay, Driven to Distraction:

“Email, digital news alerts, SMS, phone calls, attention-grabbing stunts, even letters and faxes (and, since my time, RSS feeds, tweets, blogs, social networking pokes) pour in so torrentially that the requisite isolation becomes impossible.

“As my attention was being filleted, I became restless and anxious and wondered if I was suffering from some form of attention disorder. The more of a skim reader I became, the more I was “distracted” in both the modern and archaic senses: scatterbrained and upset. I could not stay on top of what the blogger and fiction writer Cory Doctorow calls the internet’s “ecosystem of interruption technologies”. Nor, as a writer, did I necessarily want to.

“I felt myself becoming one of what the playwright Richard Foreman calls “pancake people – spread wide and thin”. I could have made a case study for the psychological research that, Carr writes, “long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”

“As I struggled to recover my powers of concentration, the most telling analysis came from the author Mandy Sayer. She said that writer’s block didn’t originate in a lack of inspiration. It wasn’t a lack of anything, she said. The problem was an excess of connectedness.”

Writing can be so fragile that most authors see over-connectedness as a hazard to be avoided. Only on the fringes have authors changed the way they write.

But a book sits on a bookshelf, waiting to be discovered – and, as I’ve found serendipitously over and over and over again, at just the right time. I would still be a stockbroker if I hadn’t discovered Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt in an old secondhand bookshop, waiting for a late train. And finding Randolph Stowe’s Merry-Go-Round In The Sea in a damp bedsit in North London made me realise how far I was from the home I’d always thought I wanted to escape, and how much a part of me it was, just as Rob and the book did.

And I stand guilty as charged if the charge is anti-intellectualism. There are no two words that fill me with greater dread (apart from performance artist, ficto-critic, Lacanian theory or haemorrhoidal leakage) than “public intellectual.” Anybody who presumes to be such is worthy of all the derision the phrase suggests. Intellectualism puffs and preens, prancing about on study leave and at literary festivals, laughing too soon and too hard, making sure everybody else knows they got the joke first. It wafts about uttering gnomic and nonsensical statements about nothing, its eyebrows arched, presuming it knows better. It doesn’t, and just as the people who least deserve power are the ones who jostle most noisily for it, often the people we should ignore the most are the ones shouting the loudest, even as it’s the quietest ones who have the most to say.

I don’t just read to think: I read to feel. For though thought can be debated, feeling is the well-spring of belief. And belief is the cornerstone of action. We may know the facts, but unless we feel for the people whose stories are being told, we cannot ever understand or be moved to do anything about them. Facts and argument are like statistics: numbers and words and lies. But the meaning of great fiction, whatever form it takes, is the belief it inspires to make us feel differently, to see differently, to live differently. I’ve heard some young writers say they “write for themselves” or that they “just want their work to touch one person:” to which I’d say ‘why not print it out, take it into the toilet, and touch yourself? It’d save everyone else the trouble.’

And that’s the reason, I think, that “literary fiction” is doddering. Not because of the technology it employs, but because rather than offering readers an opportunity to see themselves in the lives of others, writers – and I include myself here, writing a sort of historical novel on a university scholarship – are guilty of retreating to the false security of the academy (now corporatized and delivering “learning outcomes” to “customers” while “rationalising” department budgets), the safe confines of the past, and allowing stylistic gimmickry (such as the present tense, rightly criticised by Phillips Pullman and Hensher as being faddish, limiting and claustrophobic: to overtake and overwhelm the most important thing about a novel, the one thing it does well: to tell a story. We need to grab the present and hold it up to our readers’ faces, showing them not only themselves, but the world around them: to take back the transformative role of fiction from “creative non-fiction” and “reportage” and Twitter and make it relevant to our readers.

I also think, that like the music industry on which it has recently modelled itself, the publishing industry needs to change its business model substantially. Not like this but returning to the essence of what good writing is all about: simply telling stories that mean something. If lower profits mean less crappy books get published, then surely that isn’t a bad thing: there are literally hundreds of great books I am devastated I’ll never read, so the evanescent distraction of millions of awful celebrity biographies or misery memoirs or vampire trilogies is one I can do without. As Will Self, of all people, pointed out.

“I do think electronic publishing is likely to further subvert the print media in the next few years, but I’ve no doubt that the medium isn’t altogether the message. Simply because there’s another way of making views known, it doesn’t mean that good style, research, or engaging opinions aren’t required. There’s an aspect of the internet forums that presupposes — and enacts! — that old canard that everyone has a novel in him. I don’t think everyone does at all — and the Net is a medium which unfortunately makes it easier for those who have bad novels and miscellaneous other screeds to get them out.”

If publishers believe, really believe in a book, it will get published, no matter how much or how little it sells. And it’s heartening to see how small, independent publishers like Scribe, Text, Transit Lounge, Sleepers and others continue to thrive, precisely because of that passion.

Although, as W H Auden once noted, ‘some books are undeservedly forgotten, none are undeservedly remembered,’ like Cao Xue Qin’s masterpiece, the great books will always be remembered. Not just on Amazon bestseller lists or in academic treatises, but where they belong, in our hearts and in our own work: to bring back the intimate connection of art from the oblivious rapacity of commerce.

Much has been made of the recent closure of major book chains like Borders, but what passionate, engaged reader ever bothered with the overpriced books or desultory service offered by its underpaid staff? The future of bookselling is as intimate as fiction should be: specialised, passionate, informed, like Readings, Lesley McKay’s, Shearers. These booksellers will, if they concentrate on what they do so well, always exist, and possibly thrive, even in the shadow of Amazon.

As the iPad-owning Hodges points out, ‘type “J. M. Coetzee” or “Jean-Paul Sartre” into the iBooks store search engine and “no results” is the response. Until, I can find the same range of books as I would in Carlton’s Readings shop — so that the e-store responds to my reading needs, rather than encouraging me to consume the limited range it offers — my interest will be limited.’

And though may get cheaper prices on Amazon or iBooks, we’ll never get that meaningful human interaction. After all, like a city, the point of a library is the other people in it. Like literature.

Chekhov famously said that ‘a writer should be humane to their fingertips.’ And I’m starting to realise that it’s not a sense of consequence that makes us human – even Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to it; nor even emotion – animals feel too. No: it’s imagination, that sense of empathy that comes with connection and compassion, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feeling what it must really be like for them. This is the almost religious, meditative transcendence of great literature. As Einstein says on a popular t-shirt, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge,’ knowing isn’t enough: understanding is.

Belief is an extension of that humane imagination. We want more than anything to believe, and we readily suspend our disbelief in church, in love, in fiction. No doubt my faith in fiction, despite the many supposed terrors and doubts that surround it, might be considered quixotic. But all writing, especially novel writing, is, by its nature, essentially quixotic (recalling that first great novel): unrealistic, romantic, visionary, impractical. No writer I know writes only for the money, though we cannot eat our words and we need money to survive and to write. Writing is bad for you: lonely, poorly-paid, full of drudge and doubt, in which we sacrifice our health and sanity and personal relationships with no idea at the end of our Sisyphean labours if anyone will even read it, much less like it. But if that’s the whole story, why do so many people want to be writers?

The returns offered by writing are rare, but that’s what makes them so precious. They’re not reflected in publication or sales or prizes or even just getting it right, but in that thing which makes art great and our lives meaningful because of it: that connection with each other, regardless of time and space and distance and race, in which our paltry, chattery, restless selves are subsumed into something more profound than we can ever touch in the course of our thrumming, mundane, noisy, internet “connected” lives.

Art is priceless precisely because it cannot be commodified or priced: and the prize any good writer should seek is worth far more than any offered by a literary panel or arts funding body: that connection, that human connection. Without people to read it or see it or listen to it or be moved by it, without people to see each other and themselves in it, it is meaningless. Great art, as Salman Rushdie, points out in Imaginary Homelands:

“Literature is self-validating. That is to say, a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes the author has been obliged to approach from the outside. Literature is not in the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups. And as for risk: the real risks of any artist are taken in the work, in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think [and feel]. Books become good when they go to this edge and risk falling over it—when they endanger the artist by reason of what he has, or has not, artistically dared.”

This doesn’t mean the failed gimmickry of “experimental writing [and/or] aesthetic strategies.” Great writing is great because it takes those risks and succeeds beyond our wildest imaginations. Experimental writing is merely a hastily published failed draft. No: taking the risk of great writing means picking up the blunt tools we have, the obsolete technology and the inadequate material, and fashioning it, without fear or favour or fame, until our fingertips bleed.

It’s not as if literature doesn’t offer us a dazzling array of voices, perspectives, tenses, themes, settings and genres to choose from and make whatever we want of them. What makes a detective novel like, say, Newton Thornberg’s Cutter and Bone art is that it transcends not just its genre, but its time and place and author, to become what all great writing imagines: a land without borders, a language beyond translation, a community of like-minded people, all believing in the very things that make us human.

We have to believe in what we do, for without that belief, without that passion, what’s the point? If we cannot believe in fiction and its transcendent, transformative imaginative power, how can we ever expect our readers to? And as long as we can imagine and believe, and our work can offer our readers that quiet, still, rich place to imagine and believe, to give them the space to face the inevitable disappointments and heartaches of life with new inspiration and courage, then isn’t that more than enough, regardless of how they discover it?

This is the artefact we leave to the ages, to supposed posterity: a vision of us, right now, right here, flung into the aether like the brass plate in a lonely space probe, without any idea of who will ever read it, much less understand it. As writers, we must resist the distractions of virtual “over-connection” on the internet to make the real, human connections that matter – just as we must as readers. If whoever finds these tarnished relics sees their own reflection in the brass, that vision will speak across the ages, the spaces, all those distances between knowing and understanding.

 

 

FROM THE EMERGENCY:
an interview with Sunil Badami

Posted on April 17, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

This is the nightmare. You write your first novel. You pour everything you have into it, from raw talent to wild hope. You finish this novel and a publisher expresses interest. You come home one night and someone has stolen your computer and the novel is gone. There’s barely a trace of it left. Of course, this is not a nightmare—this happened.

You’ve spent the last few years rewriting this stolen novel. I was wondering whether you could speak about the writing of that first book, the nightmare experience, and the process of rewriting.

SUNIL BADAMI

Well, even getting to the point where I’d gotten close to finishing it – I’d done ten drafts of the completed manuscript before it was stolen (not to mention all the drafts and wrong turns along the way) – was a nightmare in itself as well! I mean, I’d started writing the novel when I was 19 and lost it when I was 33, so I’d been writing it in fits and starts for 14 years. And despite not writing it every day – at least up until the year it was stolen – it was with me all the time, so I spent a large part of my 20s – at least those years of them I wasn’t hung-over or heartbroken – feeling terribly guilty about not writing the novel.

I originally started writing the novel when I was in hospital for six months. I’d broken both knees on consecutive nights and then tripped over the day they got me to walk after the operation. So I set myself the project of reading every Booker Prize winner from Midnight’s Children to The English Patient. When I got to the passage that read “and the shadow fell upon his face like a pool of crushed grapes,” I knew two things: one, I wasn’t going to read any more; and two, I’d write something myself.

I didn’t think I was better than a Booker prize-winning author! But I guess like most writers, I started writing because I wanted to read a story I hadn’t read. So I started writing a story about a doctor telling his children stories of all the weird and wonderful case histories he’s encountered: the Siamese twins in love with the same lass, the face-blind family, the woman who spoke in foreign accents without ever having left the District, and the man who became allergic to the love of his life.

What started out as a long short story to while away the time in hospital between operations somehow became 60 000 words in eight weeks. I was astounded – it looked like the beginnings of a novel, even if I’d never imagined I, of all people, could ever write one.

But at that moment, all I wanted to do was finish it. I made the big mistake of showing friends and family. Something I’d never do now. Perhaps I was trying to impress them that I’d managed to write so much, but I think part of it was also just confirming that I’d actually done it, you know, written as much as I had. But I learnt after the umpteenth raised-eyebrowed “And how’s the (ahem) novel going?” to shut my mouth.

I can’t say how I got the idea, exactly. Probably being in hospital, surrounded by the ill and afflicted. I’d always been fascinated by circus freaks – being one of only four or five non-white, non-footy playing kids in a school of 1500… well, you can work out why I had such an affinity. The original idea was about a man with heart cancer, although it doesn’t really exist, and even then I knew it was too obvious and too heavy handed (I was cleaning up my attic the other day and found the original beginnings of that story, sketched out when I was about 18, a few months before I went into hospital, in that cramped, light blue, diffident hand I always felt embarrassed by. But the story was there, timorous and fragile, like the ultrasound of what it would become).

What really interested me about the man who was allergic to the love of his life was something I once said around that time, that ‘you often don’t get what you really want until you don’t really want it anymore.’ At the time, I just thought it was a nicely turned phrase, but as I’ve gotten older…

It occurred to me, even then, that what we often want is what we don’t have, what we can’t have, and I wondered if perhaps we didn’t really want it once we got it? Or if we only got it when we stopped desiring it so much? Often, achieving that goal or attaining that prize is anticlimactic: we’re more often relieved or drained by the end.

So what would happen if a man who could get anything he wanted, and as a result, didn’t really want anything at all (or want for anything), suddenly discovered that he couldn’t have the one thing he really wanted more than anything else?

There’s an allergy called marital allergy where women are allergic to the protein in their husbands’ semen, which leaves them in great pain after sex. When I have asked people what they’d do if the love of their life had marital allergy, they reply that they’d use a condom. But what if you were latex intolerant? Oh, they say, we’d just break up. Really? You’d just break up with the one person you wanted to be with, the one person who wanted to be with you, the person who made you laugh, who made you happy, who completed you, who finished your sentences, who understood you, who made you feel safe and loved? I mean, people stay with people who do none of that, so why would it be so easy to just walk away?

Love is a free energy – like happiness, it’s one of the few commodities in the world that increases by sharing. And yet humanity has invented all these impediments to the free movement and sharing of love: class, caste, race, gender, religion, whatever. There are so many challenges to love, and yet it’s the one thing that makes us alive, that makes us appreciate the meaning of living.

It’s also something that I, like many self-obsessed young men in my twenties was more in love with the idea of, than really understanding it myself; and in addition to the same bad relationship ten times over before I met my wife, the book I guess was my way of working out what love meant. As I grew and got older, the book grew and changed as well, though how it did before it was lost, I can’t say now.

Anyway, I’d write in fits and starts over the years, mainly case histories, squirreling away bits and pieces of information and data, strange facts, quotes, whatever, adding bits and pieces with an idea of what would happen in the end, but never sure how it would come together. It is interesting how thinking about a novel is almost the same as writing it; plot holes were patched up and new lines of narrative opened up, and the book changed a lot over the years.

I had a lot of problems working out the narrative voice at first. It was meant to be one indeterminate narrative voice like the unnamed, unreliable narrator in Oscar and Lucinda, but I found it too hard to sustain over two or three different storylines. Like most young writers, I wanted to say everything about everything, so the story would often run away from me, and I had lots and lots of loose ends, all bursting out of the gate but fizzling into nothing.

(While cleaning the attic, I actually found an old, old, first draft. I was asked to submit it to a publisher for a reader’s report about ten years ago, and flicking through it, I was surprised at how good parts of it were. I couldn’t believe a 19 year old had that command of language, or that fearlessness, but I suppose most writers would say that when they first start writing, they just go with it: everything’s a first draft, everything seems to come out fully formed, all they do is go back and change some words here or there.)

Of course, as you keep writing, it gets harder, and I think the difference between people who write, and Writers, is working through those difficult years when you just can’t seem to get anything right. For a number of years I found it very hard to write anything, least of all the novel, distracted by the rush and thrum of my messy twenty-something life. Of course it’s easy when it’s fun and you find you’ve written 60 000 words without quite knowing how you did it; it’s trying to write anything at all and not know how you’ll do it that determines whether you’re a writer or not, whether you love what you do, even when it’s hard, or it’s just something to keep you amused as you wait for the specialist to drop by your hospital bed.

Anyway, whatever I did, even if I wasn’t writing, I knew I just wanted to be a writer. And after a few lost years, in which I traveled, got heartbroken, read voraciously but wrote little, I returned to university and completed my honours degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but when I was lucky enough to get a first with a story that was very well received, I was inspired to start the novel again.

An editor friend asked me what I was planning to do with the first. I hadn’t really thought about it, but he told me about the MA in Creative Writing at East Anglia, then considered the best in the world. Why didn’t I apply?

I applied for scholarships to universities in the UK and USA. Although I did get interviewed for East Anglia and was shortlisted for a number of scholarships, including the Fulbright, I missed out on them – perhaps because in the interview for the latter, so overwhelmed with excitement, when asked whom I admired most, I replied “Che Guevara. Um, not because I advocate armed revolution or anything…”

I ended up going to Goldsmiths at the University of London. At the time, I asked a very well-known writer who I knew and whose work I admired if they could write me a reference. They obliged, but admonished me too. ‘Why do you need a creative writing degree? All you need to be a writer is to observe acutely, listen carefully, live enthusiastically, read voraciously and write, write, write every day!’ And you know what, after two creative writing courses, here and in the UK, I’d have to say she’s absolutely right.

The truth of that wise writer’s admonishment is that despite what many creative writing courses suggest, you can’t be taught how to write – least of being taught talent. Writing is a process of learning – from story to story, from book to book – and just as teaching implies an easy answer, learning demands hard work.

The funny thing is that although there’s so much pressure on writers and writing students to write the perfect book, especially given that we don’t often have more than one shot in the locker (rather than the three or four book apprenticeship the legendary Andre Deutsch editor Diana Athill once spoke of), the moment you wrote the “perfect book,” the one that said everything you wanted to say, exactly as you imagined it, you probably wouldn’t write another thing, would you, Harper Lee? I remember a much wiser writer telling me after the bar had closed that the reason most writers are alcoholics is because they’re either terrified they can’t write, or worse, that they can’t write as they once did. I’d much rather be a good writer with a shelf full of good books and one great one, than a genius with only one great book to my name. But I suppose, being an unpublished writer, I can afford the luxury of such fantasies!

Actually, I applied for an overseas course for a number of reasons, mainly because they could provide me with the greatest possible opportunity to potentially meet US or UK publishers and agents. Also, it offered a wonderful opportunity for my wife and I to spend a year or two away alone together, to do the traveling she hadn’t had an opportunity to do before, and to live in and explore a foreign city together.

Going to the UK was great because it only involved a one year absence, my wife could work there, Europe was close, and there was the possibility of staying on.

In those regards, going overseas was perfect, both personally and creatively. Being away from home made me imagine and envision home with all the clarity of remove – as Joyce or Gogol wrote about their homelands from far away.

Goldsmiths was especially wonderful. I’d really admired the work of the British writer Blake Morrison, who’d helped create creative non-fiction with his beautiful memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? Blake’s parents were both doctors, like mine, and I’d used the memoir as a model for part of my novel, so the opportunity to work with him closely was amazing. Blake is one of the UK’s top writers and critics – he was chair of the Booker Prize judging panel that awarded the prize to Oscar and Lucinda, another major influence on my novel – and he knew nearly every great British writer.

It was just mind-blowing to go to our afternoon seminar and sit a couple of feet away from the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Bennett, Julian Barnes, Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, Tobias Hill, Aminatta Forna, Nick Hornby, Bernardine Esposito and others just talking about their work and the writing life. Hearing them talking candidly and encouragingly about writing was inspiring.

Unlike creative writing courses I’ve experienced in Australia, Goldsmiths was rigorous, with a four hour morning workshop which involved workshopping two people’s work for two hours, a seminar on a book from the prescribed reading list presented by students, and an hour of writing exercises and discussion. After lunch, you might have a one-on-one session with either of your two tutors (my other tutor was the prize-winning poet Lavinia Greenlaw, who now teaches at UEA), to which you were expected to bring a 5000 word extract for feedback; or you might have a student-led workshop, where you’d workshop someone else’s work. Then the afternoon seminar with the great writers; then the best part of the day, sitting in the pub afterwards, just talking about writing.

I’m very wary of discussing writing too much though. I think it can lend itself to the kind of wanky pretentiousness you encounter at lots of writers’ festivals and literary events, where non-writers (or, as I used to be, an occasional writer who talked more about writing than actually writing) invest writing with a kind of mystical formula that only those on the “inside” can ever know: that if you have the right passion or the right set of rules or the right pen or the right course, you’ll write a best seller. As if anything tangible was an ingredient for art, or talent, or even genius.

But that chatter, just talking and talking and talking about what we read or wrote or wanted to do, finding out about each other, sounding off and against each other, feeling each other and our work out, was invaluable. A lot of drunken nonsense was spouted, but a lot of interesting ideas emerged too. And it reminded me that you don’t have to endure the long distance runner’s isolation: that if you can find a good group of writer friends who share your aesthetics and ideals, you can get through the difficult solitude of actually writing.

Anyway, a big part of the assessment schedule involved regular submission – you had to provide four extracts of 5000 a semester – two for your workshops and two for your tutorials. You had to deliver two seminars and a 5000 word paper on texts from the prescribed reading list, plus a final portfolio of 20 000 words of creative writing and a 10 000 word exegesis. There was a lot of work to do in the six days between workshop days, and my 20 other classmates were among the most creative, driven and passionate people I’d ever encountered.

Despite an Australian creative writing academic once telling me they were happy “catering to the bottom end of the market” the most important component of any creative writing course, in addition to the teaching staff and the writers they attract, is your other classmates. If they are of a high standard and work ethic, you’ll soon find if you want to keep up you have to be too.

So that was a very big incentive to write every day. But more importantly, to support us, my wife had taken a very junior position at a publisher’s, and while she liked the people she worked with, she didn’t much enjoy the job. Because I’d missed out on a scholarship, we’d used the house deposit to go. And part of the whole “you quit your job and come to London while I pursue my dreams” pitch was that we’d try for our first baby before we returned, hoping that the child could be born in the UK and get a British passport.

So it was imperative that I finished the novel and got an agent and/or publisher before we left. Although in the past, I’d always written at night, when everything was still and I was half-dreaming, I couldn’t not spend time with my wife in the evenings, especially as we didn’t know many people in London.

So the first thing I had to do, apart from settling into my new writing space (a crawl space under the loft bed) was “change my stroke,” so to speak – learning how to write in the day rather than the night.

Every morning, I’d get up with my wife and see her off to work, then start writing from 9am until about 3 or 4pm. I have to say pure guilt drove me on – how could I laze about doing nothing while she slaved away? I’d do errands in the afternoon and then spend the evening with her.

Unfortunately, changing my work habits as I got used to a new educational system and settled in took over six months – no matter how hard I tried, everything I wrote was terrible. I became very despondent, thinking about “The Golden Year” about five years before, in which I’d written a poem every day, had really worked on the novel and had written a number of short stories which had gotten published. But the harder I tried, the harder it got.

One of the stories I delivered that first fruitless semester was a short story which had come to me in a nightmare. I dreamt that I was still living at my mother’s house in the outer western suburbs of Sydney and struggling with one of the first versions of the book. A strange man came to the house and asked to see my mother. It turned out that he was me from 20 years in the future, offering me the completed book because it had taken so long to write and taken so much out of him that he’d run out of energy and inspiration to write any more. But the completed book came with strict instructions not to change it in any way – which of course I did. The story ended with me trying to remember the original book and realizing it might take 20 years to rewrite.

Anyway, by the second half of the academic year, my writing had hit its stride. I was writing every day, hitting 1500 words a day on the novel, writing 500 to 1000 words on a blog and writing a short story every two weeks. It felt as if I was on this amazing magical pony which I could barely control: I was too afraid to stop in case I lost the ride, so I kept holding on for dear life, wherever it took me. And it took me to pretty much to the end of the novel, with over 130 000 words (of which I hoped to cut about 20 000). And the novel I was writing was a complete rewrite of the original novel from scratch. Perhaps I should have read my story more closely.

But that output and creative energy was a wonderful confluence of everything that makes a creative writing course worthwhile, and that’s reflected too in the number of successfully published graduates of the course, which, when I was there, had only been going a few years (among them, Evie Wyld, the author of the acclaimed After the Fire, A Still Small Voice).

I gave myself ample time to prepare my final submission – over two months, as I already had more than enough work I could submit. I spent the final two months writing the exegesis, and two days before it was due to go to the printer (and a week before I was due to submit and then take my father in law on his first ever trip around the UK and France) my computer died as I pressed print. The entire draft was lost, and I only had another rough copy I’d printed out to check for subs to go by. I had to retype the entire 10 000 word exegesis, bibliography and footnotes, as well as reformat the entire document in the remaining two days and nights. I barely made it to the printers but luckily managed to submit on time.

Then we went away, my wife, my father in law and I, for a wonderful holiday – to celebrate his 60th birthday and first ever visit to Europe; me completing the degree and almost finishing the novel; and, best of all, the impending birth of our first child.

I always backed up my files, especially the novel, to a portable external hard drive, though I left the drive attached to the computer. And I did just that, along with the photos from my father in law’s trip, while we went to the British Library down the road to look at some of the beautiful and rare manuscripts, among them Shakespeare’s Folios and what was left of Mozart’s Requiem (his impoverished widow forced to sell pages to collectors).

I suppose you’d consider it ironic, my father in law and I wandering those ancient tomes which had survived so many wars and dark ages, as my computer was being stolen not ten minutes’ walk away.

When we got home, I noticed something awry. The door was shut, but a heart shaped box we used to keep change in was on the floor, and the change missing. It didn’t immediately strike me that anything was amiss, and I didn’t even notice the computer was gone. But when I did –

Now, a lot of people at this point say: That must have been devastating. Yes, you could say that, although I don’t know if even devastation is the right word. I’d experienced great physical pain before, having been twice hit by a car, but this went beyond that. I’d experience great emotional distress before too, having once had my heart broken beyond even my romantic notions of it, but this too went beyond that.

When I’d experienced both the physical and emotional pain I’d had, at the moment of impact, everything seemed at once very slow and unbelievably fast: I could see each moment of it unfolding (the car collecting me under the fender, seeing the driver’s face; the moment she told me she didn’t love me) and yet before I knew it, it had already become a horrible unforgettable memory.

Even now, thinking of all these events – the first car accident, that break up, losing the novel – I’m at once overwhelmed by that first terrible moment, and also the memory of everything that followed after its first impact had receded. It’s a fizzy, bitter swirl of fear and horror and sheer, unutterable helplessness: it’s happened without you even suspecting it was coming, and now it’s gone.

I ran out into the street, yammering My novel! My fucken novel! I’ve lost my fucken novel! Over and over and over again. I ran to the end of it, hoping perhaps the thieves had only just done it and I might catch them, or that someone had seen them (though being taciturn old London, how I expected anyone to bother telling me, or what I’d do if I did run into the thieves is beyond me now).

Then calling the police, finding out what was taken (£100 in coins, the iPod, clothes) and spending the night filling out forms. That stopped me thinking too much about it, I suppose – the same triplicate mechanics you must do when someone dies – but when my father in law asked if I’d backed up –

Now, as someone who has lost pretty much everything they wrote for 13 years in one fell swoop as a result of not having backed up, may I offer the following suggestion to those who may find themselves in the same situation as my father in law that evening.

Do not ask someone who has just lost everything they’ve ever written if they backed up, and when hearing their blubbering response, reply “Well, you should have.”

That long night, I pulled a bottle of 15 year whisky we’d bought in the Highlands and drank the whole thing. I remember Baudelaire saying “brandy makes the thoughts stop” and though I don’t buy into the whole “writer’s life” fantasy that many aspiring writers hold on to – that being a writer gives you permission to act badly or drink too much – I am ashamed to admit that when I’m writing, in that half-life between the real and imagined, I often do drink a bit more than I should, just to stop the thrum and barrage of thoughts, half-sentences, chapters, story arcs ahead and just past, tangling themselves into a confusing stew, swirling and twirling around into my dreams.

But I’m sure most people would agree the best solution – at least immediately, in the face of such loss – is paralyticism and oblivion, even for one night.

The next morning, aching and hungover, regret like ashes in my mouth, I looked at the empty place on my desk where the computer had been. And to my surprise and relief, I discovered the backup drive. The thieves had left the drive and power cord to the computer, so there was still some hope. I was elated, and made sure my father in law knew about it.

I went to a computer store to check the files, and there I discovered that as the drive had been pulled out in the middle of a backup, all the files had been corrupted: all the writing, and just as devastatingly, the photos. All the pictures we’d taken in the last few months had been lost. Luckily, I’d kept copies of the photos on DVD, but not the novel.

With our imminent return to Australia – all the packing and winding up – I didn’t have any further opportunity to think much about the novel, let alone start writing again. The whole tumult had been too exhausting and dispiriting. With a new baby due in three months, I really didn’t think I’d ever write again, much less start the novel again. I’d always promised myself that I could never deny my children a decent life for the sake of my great unfinished novel. I had to put aside my dreams and ambitions and realize I’d had my chance, and it had been lost.

People have said “Losing your novel must have been like losing a child.” Well, as the father of two beautiful children, more beautiful than I could have ever imagined or possibly hoped for, I have to say that despite the obvious devastation of losing any novel – let alone one you’ve been writing nearly your entire adult life – it’s not. You can always rewrite a novel, you can always reimagine it. In fact, every novel is a kind of revision of the ones before it – whether the ones a writer’s written, or the ones they’ve read. And you cannot rewrite or reimagine a child. If you gave me the choice between writing a bestselling novel and my children, it wouldn’t even be a contest. But I say this now, not then, when my firstborn wasn’t even an idea, much less one I could appreciate or grasp: when my wife told me the foetus was the size of a paperclip, I could only imagine a paperclip in her uterus.

(because of the horrendous amount of paperwork involved in staying in the UK, and with no guarantee of citizenship for the baby, we decided to go home – and as anyone who’s had to grapple with a newborn baby would know, having family and friends around in those fraught, fragile, sleepless first few months is a necessity beyond words)

So, back in my mother’s house in the empty Western Suburbs, looking for a house, a job, a doctor for the baby and more, although the heartbreak over the novel’s loss remained – perhaps because I hadn’t really thought about it properly. Even after that disastrous heartbreak, it occurred to me that we grieve not so much what we had, but what we hoped to have, what we imagined we might if we’d just held on that little bit longer. True for an infatuation or too-brief affair, and especially so for a lost unpublished novel. The characters kept talking to me, but I was too tired by our relocation and the excitement about the baby to try to write anything down. I felt very very sorry for myself and my dashed hopes.

Then, a week before the baby was due, something as unexpected as the novel. A London agent, seeing the last three surviving chapters, approached me. And that same week, so did an Australian agent. I didn’t know what to do – my baby was due, and I couldn’t think about it until after the birth.

And when our daughter Leela was finally born after a terrible, arduous, 27 hour labour, I felt something I’d only felt once before on my wedding day: a brilliant, beautiful, energizing, invigorating rush of egolessness, a relief and reprieve from my worries, my anxieties, my obsessive repetitious thoughts, myself. I couldn’t think of myself or my lost novel, only this tender, raw, fragile, trembling little thing, still smelling of her mother’s womb, squalling and shivering, totally helpless – for whom I was now totally responsible. It struck me then that while I could be a failed novelist, an ex-boyfriend, a former orthopaedic patient, I would always be this child’s father. And nothing else mattered a whit then – and, to be honest, nothing else does.

I got in touch with the agents, and told them my situation. They asked when I could resubmit the manuscript. “Easy,” I said, echoing the blithe “me” of my story – “it’s all in my head, so how about six months?”

Ah, reader! Who was it that said a pram in the hallway is the loss of a book? In addition to teaching English as a Foreign Language in a two-bit visa factory in the city, struggling with the four hour commute and helping with the baby, I could barely think, let alone write. But I started, something tentative, writing as much as I could between naps in the evening.

It was hard work. But with the baby not sleeping, my wife at her wits’ end, having to find freelance ghostwriting jobs and teaching positions, what I did write wasn’t much, and wasn’t much good. Not having written anything since I’d lost the novel, my writing muscles were weak and flaccid. I hated everything I wrote, and I was convinced I’d never recapture that new “Golden Year” the year before. But I wrote every day, every chance I got, so I could at least present the agents with a decent, saleable 15 000 word extract.

I think I ended up with 15 000 words in three or four months, but of that, I could only really use about 5 000. And I kept going over it, re-writing, filling in plot holes, re-writing characters, editing heavily, so every step forward demanded two or three back.

It was as if the original, lost book was standing over my shoulder, snickering and whispering as I wrote about how it would have done that better, or differently, or funnier. I was paralysed by the ghost of the original book, and the new book only seemed a pale, empty golem of it. But I kept writing, though with diminishing pleasure and confidence.

Then, a week after we moved into our new home after six months of searching, something wonderful happened and we came into some money – enough not only to end our worries, but to give me the chance to write again.

The money was enough to put the agents off – after all, I didn’t need an advance any longer, so as I made it clear, while before I was willing to write something, anything to get what was left out there so I could start on the next book in my head, I now had the opportunity to write the book I always wanted to write, the book that had been plaguing my dreams for the last fourteen years. So unless any advance they could negotiate could match the sum of money we’d come into, I’d take my own sweet time – after all, it had taken me 14 years so far, so what was another year or two?

When people, eyebrows arched, asked me how the book was going and when I was going to finish it and offering me lots of advice to do it (usually along the lines of “you just have to get on and finish it”) I always replied that if I had the money and the time to do it, I would. And I’d always assumed that having all the time and money to write, I’d dash off great masterpieces in the morning, before enjoying long, literary lunches. Don’t we all?

Now I did have all the time and money I needed, you know what? It made the writing even harder. With the money to pay for research, with no other demands on my time, I hardly wrote a thing. I’d write something, then discover a new fact or error, and have to rewrite again. I’d write the same scene over and over, trying to make it perfect, or I’d get distracted by the new responsibilities that money brought – insurance, dealing with lots of people who I’d never had to before, such as accountants and financial planners, or just enjoying it: eating out, traveling, lazing, living.

And it occurred to me then that Peter Gabriel (of all people) was right: artists are mischievous creatures, and we need constraint. You give an artist everything they think they need to make the art, and you’ll end up with nothing. Which is pretty much what I had now I didn’t have any excuse not to write. Whether it’s time or money or form, the art emerges from those constraints: from the emergency, so to speak, of finding a way of escape.

Then one morning in January 2008, my wife asked me when I was planning on finishing the novel. End of the year, I assured her. “Well,” she said, “perhaps you should bring the deadline forward to September.” I didn’t understand at first, and then it dawned on me. We were pregnant again. Knowing how hard it was to write with one baby in the house, I started writing furiously in a panic: I had to finish the book before the second baby, which I knew would ramp up the exhaustion and stress even further. And I didn’t want to not be as involved in my second child’s life as I had been in my first child’s.

It was a terrible, terrible year for my writing. I started writing at night, after my wife and baby had gone to bed, trying to snatch a few hours’ writing before Leela woke up for her midnight feed, then writing a bit more until I drank and drank to stop the thoughts whirring in my head. I’d write from 9.30pm until 1.30am, feed and settle the baby, then write again until 3.30am, finally stumbling into bed at 4.30am, before waking at 6.30am to help out.

More than this, I kept thinking about finishing the book – the whole book, all of it, even though I had no idea how to do it. The looming weight of the whole entire book was unbearable. I was exhausted, and I had to stop – not just because I was drinking more than I wanted to to keep the doubts and thoughts at bay, but because the exhaustion was turning me into the arsehole writer I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be. I was too tired to imagine, too tired to write properly, too tired to live properly either. Although I got a lot of writing done, it wasn’t great, and I fell into a deep, paralyzing depression for three months, unable to write, to read, to do anything more than sleep and feel ashamed and defeated.

As it turned out, in addition to the exhaustion, I was suffering a severe Vitamin D deficiency, and so after diagnosis and treatment, I felt a lot better, and ready to climb the mountain of my novel again. What I needed to do was to find something that offered my days some structure, something that took time away from my writing time, so that I was more focused in that time.

Freud spoke of the eroticism of transgression, and for me, despite whatever privileged, tenured literary theory academics might suggest, writing and reading have always been slightly transgressive acts. In some countries, they’re acts of rebellion; for me, the best books were those I wasn’t meant to be reading that late at night, under the cover of the torch – let alone reading at all; and writing, that utterly necessary frivolity, had lost its dangerous excitement and become a chore, an obligation.

So, despite my misgivings, I enrolled in a creative writing PhD at the invitation of an old mentor who said he needed good candidates for the course he’d just been appointed to head. The tawdry, disappointing story of those wasted years is too long and boring to recount here, but all I’ll say is this: it’s a measure of the disconnect of the academy from reality when none of the academics who run the course have ever written, much less published, any creative writing; when academic publication in obscure online journals is ranked higher than any creative writing published in prominent literary journals, newspapers or magazines; and when no novel, poetry collection or any writing of any kind or any worth is produced by such courses. Can you recall a major, popular or critically acclaimed novel produced by an Australian creative writing course in the last ten years? When a creative writing academic says that the course does not and cannot assess creative writing, but that you must understand critical theory to write a novel, because without theory, you cannot avoid cliché – and can say this with a straight face, never having actually written a novel, much less a theory-inspired one, you know there’s a serious problem.

However, after a number of run-ins with the academics, I found my passion again. At first, I thought great art had to be inspired by anger: j’accuse, motherfuckers! But as Jung once observed, art exists because the world is not perfect. And I realized I wrote not because I was angry – after all, relentlessly angry writing is as monotonously boring as interminably happy writing – but because I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the world, with all the terrible books I’d read, with the rules, with the powers that be, with being told how to think or what to say – or worse, how to feel and live.

Out of the pointless, needless distractions of academia – all installed, I suspect, only to give the academics something to do – I found my dissatisfaction, my passion, my reason to keep writing. Because my novel couldn’t be assessed for the degree, I could write what I wanted. And I did. Where before I’d worried what the old novel thought, or what readers might think, or how the agents might or might not like it, I just wrote, with no thought about anything or anyone else but my characters and their stories.

I wrote and wrote and wrote, and most importantly, I wrote and wrote and wrote every day. Where before I’d written when the inspiration struck me, now I wrote when I was unsure, when I was bored, when I was tired, hungover, depressed, busy, elated, distracted. Every day, no matter what, no matter how long it took me to get going, I’d write, and slowly, ever so slowly, the novel started to emerge again. Not the novel I’d written once, so long ago, but the novel I was writing, the novel I’m writing now.

I’ve heard some young writers talking about how much they love writing – I heard one say how he loved “connecting with himself” as he wrote. I love editing – I can do it all day – but I hate first drafting. I creep to the desk with trepidation, resignation, a horrible nausea in my gut, knowing that the brilliant image or idea I had last night, just as I fell asleep and repeated like a mantra to ensure I remembered it in the morning, is only provisional: whatever I manage to type is only an approximation, and even then, it may not last – I’ll write it and seeing it on the page, realize it doesn’t work at all.

But it’s that nervousness, that fear, that makes the writing real sometimes. When I’ve nearly killed myself to get the words right, the story right, the character right, when I’ve ended up in places I hadn’t expected, when the writing takes a turn I couldn’t predict, or a character says or does something I couldn’t imagine, then all that drudge – and it is a lot of drudge, just typing and typing until something emerges, then cutting and cutting to give it room to breath and hopefully shine – is worth it. So despite all the wasted years, I found I was now in love with the book in a way that I hadn’t been for years, even in the Golden Years.

I remember another writing student, one who hadn’t published anything and had only been writing since they were awarded the PhD place, telling me that if you love something it has to make you happy. Having been married longer than my wife would care to remember, I had to laugh. I mean, my wife loves me and I don’t make her happy all the time. Love isn’t about the better, when it’s easy and fun and not hard work; love is when it’s worse, when you don’t know if you can go on, when you’re not having fun, when it is hard work. And writing – and the love of it – is the same. I don’t write well every day; I don’t feel like writing every day; I don’t hit my word or chapter targets every day. Some days are much harder than others, and there are far fewer good days than bad.

But as you keep going, as you keep perservering, as you keep connecting to your work and your characters, you get a few more good days, and they keep you going. There are lots of points in the lives of my novel where I wanted to give up; and I regret nothing more than not sticking at it when I was younger and had so much more energy and time than I have now. But I could not have written the book I am writing now then. Yes, the language (from what I found from that ancient manuscript) is more daring; and I had an innate imagination I couldn’t even dream of now; but it lacks the wisdom, the experience, the heartbreak, the maturity I hope what I write now has.

After four years of patience, my UK agent asked for an extract. I’d never shown anyone anything yet, and I was terrified. What if she didn’t like it? Would she drop me? Then where would I be? But publishing is a form of courageous, foolish self-mortification: you publish and run the risk of being damned. But without risk, what’s the writing worth?

Fuck it, I thought: I believe in this novel. I have to. I may have doubts about my ability to serve it and its characters the way I hope they should be, I may have concerns about passages that should be edited further, I may have doubts and fears, but not about the story I want to tell. In fact, I’ve always felt as if my talents as a writer haven’t quite been up to the task of giving the idea I was so lucky to have what it deserved. But if I don’t believe in it, how will I ever get you to?

The hardest thing about writing, as in life, is knowing when to take advice and when to disregard it. In the creative writing workshop, it can mean that what you show – often for students, a hastily written first draft – can end up as a camel: that is, a horse by committee. I have no illusions that publishing is a collaborative process, working closely with your agent, your publisher, your editor, your publicist. But writing – that first draft, and the moment you hit “send” on the email – is an intensely singular, lonely experience. There should be no-one else in the room then: not the previous draft, not your imaginary readers, not even yourself.

And perhaps it’s then, in that egoless moment when you’ve forgotten how to write, and just write; when you don’t think about anything else except what’s happening to that character on the page in front of you, when all you see is one sentence becoming a paragraph, that para becoming a page, those pages becoming a chapter: always focused, in the moment you’re in – that you may achieve something of the transcendent joy we all hope for in life, let alone writing.

My lovely, supportive agent got back to me the next day. She loved it. We had to discuss completion. I agreed to a rigorous submission schedule, sending in each narrative strand (of which there are four) every three months. Could I do it? After spending nearly 18 years trying to write it, how would I know?

Yet that pressure – to send in chunks in easily measurable timeframes – has proven wonderful. I write every day because I have to. And though some days aren’t great, there’s a great satisfaction in knowing that however I felt, however little I wanted to write, whatever else I had to do that day, I still managed something. Out of those sentences, those paras, those pages, those chapters, I finally discovered something resembling a novel, and like that paperclip foetus, it’s now starting to take on features I could never have imagined, and a life of its own.

What’s been wonderful these past few productive months is how connected everything seems, from research to writing. An example: a character is afraid of the sea, despite being born with a caul, the lucky talisman that’s reputed to save sailors from drowning. I started seeing all the connections: he’s raised by the Sisters of Mercy (mer-sea) and unbeknownst to me when I started writing, his caul is shared by Nicholas Nickleby – which though I haven’t read it, is the same kind of bildungsroman I’m writing. I remembered a great line from Eliot about the mermaids singing each to each, and in trying to find the name for a dubious clairvoyant, I happened to remember an old Robert Klippel sculpture, Madame Sophie Sosostris. The sculpture itself was inspired by Eliot’s other great poem, The Wasteland, and the Madame Sosostris in the poem predicts “death by water.” Although I don’t strive to insert the symbols and metaphors as obviously and painfully as so many “Big L” literary writers seem to nowadays, I love how the idea, the inspiration, runs through the text, without being obstrusive or obstructive (as it might in a theory-inspired novel, I suspect).

It reminds me that love is, at its heart, always a kind of idea: we fall in love with the idea of love, much as we do with the idea of writing, or the idea of the novel itself, and it’s in making that idea real (even through the rubric of make believe) that brings us those ineffable moments of happiness. We see our love refracted in the newspaper, in every song on the radio, in seemingly random chance encounters, in everything. And though I sometimes fear the chasm between the real and imagined lives is a shadowy world of half-existence, one in which I’m always distracted, eating badly, never really engaged, I am: I am engaged with my novel, in a way I haven’t been for years, and it’s this engagement, this daily meeting, that writes it. I just hold on for the ride.

But as I’ve found, no matter how good the idea, in the end, it’s the work that matters: not just the finished article, but everything that goes into it.

Roland Barthes once said that the finished book is the death mask of the work, and though I’m loathe to quote French theorists (other than derogatorily, for everything they and their opportunistic, unimaginative disciples have done to the apprehension, and more importantly, the enjoyment of literature) he’s right. When the book is written and edited and published, it’s done: I’ll feel that same trepidation sending it out, but once it’s out, it’s on its own, in the care of the people who read it. I can hardly remember much of what I’ve written, and I don’t think about it once it’s gone. And, like the mother goose, I’ll thinking of my next brood.

What happens to the novel once it’s done and ready to be shopped? Who knows? It might sell, it might not. It might be popular when it’s published, it might not. That’s too far away, beyond the end of the novel itself, and I haven’t even gotten to the end of the novel yet, so (as I’ve learnt) it’s pointless wondering about what happens after that. No advance would ever pay back what I’ve already spent of our windfall in writing it – or trying to write it – these past few years, so it’s gone beyond the money alone.

But isn’t that what art does? Going beyond not just the form, but the price attached to it, whether commercial or personal? Isn’t that disregard what makes art priceless?

Of course I hope the book does well, should it ever be published, but only so I can write another, and another, and another. And all of these will only be revisions, rewritings, reimaginings of all the books before it. Just as life itself and our living and remembering of it, is always a constant revision. I want whatever I write to be like life itself – not necessarily accurate, but believable. For it’s belief that changes worlds and lives, and I can’t imagine the kind of person who’d die for Derrida. I want my novel to be messy, contradictory, variable; to shout and whisper; to laugh and cry; to offer moments of clarity and occasions of doubt; to be, as close as I can get it in a form as restricted (and simultaneously limitless) as the novel to the mess and press and diversity of life itself.

And just as life isn’t perfect, no book is either – how can it be when it itself is only an imperfect approximation of life? The moment I write the perfect one, I’ll stop – but I hope that day is a long way away.

For me, at least today as I write this, it’s the imagining, the feeling, the writing that’s most important. And it’s that: the imagining, the feeling, the writing, that gives a part of my life the meaning it needs to keep going, to keep trying, to keep striving, even when I can’t or don’t want to (my family gives me all the meaning I need for the rest of my life, and if there is anyone I really write for, it’s them – whether financially, or personally; whether to provide for them, or offer them something they’ll enjoy).

The rest – in publishing and in life – just allows the imagining and feeling and writing to happen, whether disastrous or superlative; and what makes it happen is you, working, working, working every single day.

And of all of these – idea, book, reader or me – I’m the least important.

P.S. And now I have two online back up services, four external hard drives, a Time Machine backup, backup over the network to my wife’s computer, two zip drives and I email every day’s work back to myself.

Country and Western
(Sunil Badami)

Posted on March 19, 2011 by in Being Sure

‘Where you from, mate?’

‘Sydney.’

That makes ‘em laugh, for some reason.

 

When people overseas ask me where I’m from, I naturally say “Australia.” When people interstate ask, I say “Sydney.” When people in Sydney ask, I say “Blacktown,” and they look askance, as if to say: Where the bloody hell is that?

For some, the Western Suburbs are some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale, blurring into a distant, blank space, uncharted territory, a no-man’s land of strange terrors and cultural desolation that evaporates into Emu Plains. A faraway boganville. With no atmosphere, no culture – and definitely no reason to visit. A place to leave rather than to return to, a place from which to seek asylum.

The Italian writer Aldo Busi says that ‘we travel like lobsters, our heads over our shoulders.’ Which is to say, we’re always looking back, looking away, our eyes fixed not so much on the horizon to which we’re heading, but what we left behind around the corner we just passed.

But in Sydney, where ‘executive waterfront investment opportunities’ grab at the hem of the foreshore, stabbing the skyline like upturned fingers, once-vibrant harbourside neighbourhoods are now silent but for the sound of the security buzzer, everyone as blinded as dazzled by the Harbour’s glistering, dancing light.

And, unlike the starving colonists of Old Sydney Town, who looked westwards for salvation (and installed the Governor in Parramatta Park), it seems, at least from reading the papers or listening to the radio, nobody looks West, least of all those of us who grew up there. I left as soon as I could, moving to Town, where I imagined everything happened, finding myself apologetically justifying my place by doing everything I could not to appear a Westie, even if I was still obviously a darkie.

In Greystanes, where I grew up, and where the only water views were the Beresford Road stormwater drain or the Prospect Reservoir, our gaze was always fixed on Town, as distant as another country. From the milk bar at the top of Ettalong Road, the sky bleached and laundry-dry, our paddle pops dissolving into the incandescent asphalt, you’d see the city, so far away, shimmering in the burnt-blue distance, a mirage reminding you how far away you were, despite being so close.

And at night, Town’s candy-coloured lights would flicker uncertainly as the humming sodium streetlamps of the Great Western Highway swallowed them up into the stifling night.

 

‘No, where you really from?’ they ask.

‘Well, I was born in Blacktown,’ I reply. ‘But don’t tell anyone – we don’t want to lower property values.’

They laugh a little less.

 

The Australian academic and critic Stephen Muecke observes that ‘a language like English is like a group of textual suburbs,’ each with its own character, the differences expressed not just through space and distance, but in a cultural and political geography, crowded with meaning, like, say the difference between Blacktown and Circular Quay or Greystanes and Girraween.

It’s always struck me, Greystanes or Girraween or even Doonside aside, how incongruously Western suburbs are named. The imperious names of posh suburbs like Northbridge or Edgecliff or Palm Beach describe them perfectly: there is a bridge there, it is on the edge of a cliff, and there are lots of expensively transplanted palms within the high-walled gardens of those luxurious weekenders.

But if you’ve ever been to Merrylands or Pleasure Point or Silverwater, you’d find it hard to see the merriness or pleasure or silveriness over the belch of exhaust fumes and the roar of motorway traffic. The only high walls on the Cumberland Highway are there not to protect the residents from the invasive gaze of outsiders, but from the pollution and noise and collisions that the many smash repair shops all the way to Smithfield take advantage of. Sometimes it seems, the roller shutters clamped down against the yellow heat, that even Westies don’t want to look around them.

Only Blacktown, where I was born, seems apt: named after a school established to educate the natives in ‘civilised’ English ways, its Indigenous Dharug name long lost.  Now it’s home to Sydney’s biggest population of Indigenous Australians, immigrant Indians and Sudanese refugees.

A black town, indeed, even if Greystanes did feel, growing up, as it sounded: a regretful smudge, only an incremental shade from darkness.

 

‘No, seriously, where’s your family from?’

‘Seriously? Actually, Greystanes. I grew up there.’

They stop laughing.

 

Just as for those who’ve never ventured any further down Parramatta Road past Annandale, the Western suburbs is uncharted territory, written on the blank page of an imaginary map, my geography is an emotional one. The longer you’re away, you realise that the landmarks aren’t the things you sped past on the way to the Cumberland Highway on-ramp: those mysterious, windowless hangars; the anonymous storage facilities; the cut-price hotel-motels; the shabby shops selling soiled seconds; the heavy machinery yards, the dead skeletons of cranes and earthmovers hung, fossilised, in the still, suffocating air… but the spaces they once were – and more importantly, the people who inhabit those spaces.

Unlike the heritage-listed million dollar terraces of Paddington or Rozelle, the streetscapes of Western Suburbs like Padstow or Rosehill are constantly changing, from minty fibro cottages to brick veneer bungalows; now lurid McMansions and strange glassy-faced apartments thrown onto empty stretches of Parramatta Road staring out at caryards or the acrid remains of the Homebush Abbattoirs. Could you tell Australia’s second white settlement was established at Parramatta, now in danger of being rechristened Westfieldamatta?

Horrified faces seem to ask: how could anyone want to live there? As if you only live there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, seeking asylum from even worse places. When I was due back after a couple of years in London, my mother couldn’t understand my reluctance to return. ‘There’s a new Gloria Jean’s in the Boral Brick Pit,’ she said indignantly, referring to the Pemulwuy development over the spar from the Reservoir. ‘And the coffee, frankly, is quite adequate.’

Unlike the phó, the raw beef larb, the kuttu roti, the bhelpuri or bipbimbap, which are phenomenal. Growing up eating chevapi from Fairfield, pastizzi from South Wentworthville, kofte in Auburn, at little lunch, I’d swap my puris and dhal for Marko’s csabai roll; after school, Carlo’s mum would stuff us with cannoli or we’d gobble devon-and-sauce sangers at Kieran’s.

There’s a danger, though, in regarding the Western Suburbs as a kind of food court, like a series of little China- or Viet- or Korea- or Lebanon- or Serbia-towns, enjoying the cuisine but disregarding the cultures that cooked them up, leaving “them” to deal with the mess between “authenticity” and “assimilation.”

And there’s a danger in perpetuating the false perception of “us” and “them”, East and West, when the borders are always shifting and easily crossed – as long as it takes to get on a train (or, given Western Sydney’s unending public transport woes, just getting on the motorway) – or, perhaps, more importantly, within us.

Yet it seems odd that most of the city’s population, coming from the Western Suburbs, must make the effort to engage, at least culturally, with thousands spending hours on the train or motorway to line the Harbour and crowd the Domain every January for the Sydney Festival, as if there was nowhere else to go, when while the road ends at the foreshore, there are countless directions heading the other way going West into Australia’s dark heart.

However, for “native Westies” like my mother, living in the Western Suburbs is not simply a question of affordability but community: the ‘ethnic ghettoes’ pilloried by those opposed to diversity exist only as new immigrants find their feet in a strange land among friends. It seems that the transformation in public opinion from ‘ethnic ghetto’ to celebrated ‘cultural precincts’ like Norton Street or Dixon Street takes only a generation. Just as from Ettalong Road to Centrepoint, it’s only twelve miles, even if in Sydney traffic, it sometimes it feels a world away: another country, as foreign as the past, in these forgotten places where everything seems demolished, where certainties seem erased.

But it’s in those places, like the meaning hidden in the spaces between words, where just as much, if not more, is gained in the translation, as was ever imagined lost.

 

‘Where were they born?’

‘Well, my parents were born in India – ‘

‘Right, so you’re Indian?’

 

I eat tandoori chicken I do on the barbie; I’ve read the Mahabharata, but only in English. I’m not sure I’m really Indian and yet people aren’t really sure I’m not. ‘Indianness’ is a concept as foreign to me as ‘Australianness’. Let alone ‘Westieness.’

I was born in Australia, I speak with an Australian accent, I don’t speak any Indian language, but I look Indian: what you might call a ”coconut,” white inside and brown out. It’s funny: when I tell people in India where my parents are from, they laugh and ask me where I’m really from. It’s only in India that I’m Australian… and perhaps vice-versa.

In more supposedly cosmopolitan quarters I’d find people kindly reassuring me I wasn’t really Indian, or Westie for that matter, and being surprised I took such exception.

Such questions don’t bother my mother, adjusting her sari defiantly. ‘I’m a Westernie and proud of it,’ she says, well, proudly.

But what would a Westie look like anyway (or, while we’re asking, an Aussie)? Who wears flannie shirts with Winnie Blues tucked into the sleeve over an Ackadacka tanktop stuffed into skinny jeans – and, most appallingly, with thongs?

(Actually, walking down the trendier quarters of Bondi or Surry Hills, it seems everybody. It seems strange not just that such privileged young slashies should be copying Westies, but that their Westie contemporaries might imitate them, imitating their own Westie parents.)

And it’s ironic that with Sydney’s exorbitant house prices forcing people further west, many of us who left are now returning – and those same Eastern Suburbs or North Shore denizens who might wonder who’d live in the West find themselves on its doorstep, newly arrived immigrants in enclaves like Petersham or Ashfield, where the multicultural atmosphere – with older Portuguese and Greek immigrants rubbing shoulders with newer Chinese and Anglo arrivals – is celebrated.

Much is made of Sydney’s multiculturality: after all, as Australia’s largest city, home to Australia’s busiest airport, and the first destination for many immigrants (such as my parents), it has the most and most diverse ethnic communities.

But, on a recent trip to Bondi, packed with foreign tourists, it struck me that I was the only non-white person on the street: a strange, unsettling feeling I suddenly realised I’d never have back home, out west.

And it occurred to me that the Gateway to Australia wasn’t at Circular Quay, but somewhere around Parramatta, Sydney’s demographic and geographical heart, its streets alive with exotic aromas and unheard of dialects, offering at once the reality of Sydney today, and its possibilities tomorrow. Lost for words, I thought of Muecke again:

‘When we write, we sometimes run out of words. This is because we come to the edge of the city of words, where there are no more words left in the place we find ourselves.’

 

‘No, mate, I’m a Westie. And proud of it.’

 

And it seems, just as the geography of a place is one more of meaning than merely location, so too a nation – especially a nation of immigrants like Australia – is not so much a collection of gazetted borders or place names but an idea, agreed upon by the majority of the people who claim citizenship of it.

But like any idea, like any nation, like any city, like any community, it cannot exist statically in the ghetto of some idealised past or limited to any particular definition: it can only be enriched and strengthened by debating it and expanding it, the changes keeping it alive.

And nowhere is that more true than the Western Suburbs, constantly demolishing and building and reinventing, its face changing with every new wave of arrivals, building their own ideas of Australia on the foundations of their own imaginary homelands.

Although the Indonesian-Chinese-Australian theorist Ien Ang acknowledges the conflict between questions of ‘where you’re from’ over ‘where you’re at,’ particularly for immigrants and their children, and while the idea of being where you’re at is more relevant in finding your place, it shouldn’t discount where you’re from. Why, as Salman Rushdie asks, should we be excluded from any part of our heritage, whether it’s being treated as a full part of society, or drawing on our roots – whether Oriental or Westie – for our art or identity?

In his classic The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (set in of all places, Western Australia), Randolph Stowe’s semi-autobiographically based protagonist, Rob, whose uncle is Maltese, wonders ‘if he would ever go as far as Malta, and hear people talking foreign languages in the streets.’

We needn’t travel so far: once we open the shutters and turn towards our hearts, it’s there, where it always was, and if we look hard enough, we can see it never really left us, or us it. Just as I cannot disavow my apparent Indianness, how can I deny the role my Westieness has played in my own history, my own personal journey, in my life and writing?

After all, a culture’s artists aren’t its privileged informants, but its outsiders, always on the margins, looking in: not offering new certainties, but new ways of questioning accepted ones. Like Westie Asians, accidental Orientals, from Blacktown to Chinatown, all of us double outsiders, looking in from the edge of elsewhere, offering new insights, new visions, new illuminations?

And best of all, not just artists or writers. For one marvellous month in Greystanes, we wander once silent streets, shining with fairy lights and children’s laughter and the jingle of carols. The Caruanas, the Browns, the Sabouhs and the Wongs all festoon their front windows with puddings and elves and animatronic Nativity scenes, steaming in the Mr Whippy gloaming, the sky radiant with rosy resplendence, all of us swelling with Christmas spirit and community pride: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims. My two little girls, dark-skinned, blue-eyed, half-Indian, half-Anglo and wholly Australian, are as enthralled by these Christmas decorations as they are by the Deepavali ones at the Murugan Temple up the road.

The Parramatta Advertiser proudly reports how many people come from all over the city to delight at Greystanes, of all places.

And, amidst the excited clamour and electric lustre, nobody notices the spray-on snow or sweltering Santas dissolving in the dusk, or the way each of us has added a little of our own traditions and expectations to make something shinier, more colourful, more inclusive: different, but not discrete. Nor, as the rainbow sparkles and tinkling carols shimmer along Cumberland Road, the uncertain glimmer of Town, so far away.

We’ve no need to look longingly over our shoulders that one marvellous month, for we can see that light right in front of us, where it always was: round the corner from home, in our neighbours’ and children’s faces, sticky with choc top and lit with joy.

*

‘Country and Western’ was published in Best Australian Essays 2010.