My previous blogs questioned the goodness of such supposedly good things as ‘community’, ‘nature’ and ‘Australia’ as used in contemporary literary discourses. I believe the magical aura of these terms is most commonly activated to empower their ab/users. But if cherishing a community, singing the praises of Mother Nature, and paying homage to the Fatherland are symbolic means contrived for obscuring the Real – of careerist manoeuvres, economic transactions, strategic alliances and so on – in the sorts of text which, in the classic Foucauldian sense, constitute discourse (judge’s reports, book reviews, interviews, literary articles and cultural policy statements) then what can be said about the works of literary production themselves? How ideological are novels, short stories, poems and works of literary non-fiction?
Marxist literary theory is a sufficiently well known conceptual framework and it does not require an opening here. Suffice it to say that some of the current interventions – e.g. the introduction and development of Alain Badiou’s aesthetic schemata or Jacques Rancière’s regimes of art – do not perceive works of literature as direct transmitters of ideological tropes, and these thinkers instead view literary works as finite objects produced subject to the aesthetic conditions intertwined or familial with certain socio-political ideations. According to Rancière’s latest book to appear in English, for example, “social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution” (xvi). As such, if the topics of my previous blogs can be described as Lacanian Master Signifiers – i.e. terms that present their users as ‘masters’ – then the modes of literary production themselves are subject to injunctions specific to the values of a social ‘family’. And the Name of the Father of this family in a capitalist society is, without a doubt, ‘success’.
To say that writers write to succeed would be a remarkably banal statement. But I wish to emphasise that, for the Francophone Lacan, the Father’s ‘name’ (nom) is homonymous with the primal term for prohibition, ‘no!’ (non!). I believe that in an obscenely unequal capitalist milieu in which one young Australian writer receives a seven figure advance while another young Australian writer is told to be grateful to not receive any payment whatsoever, the hegemonic order does not command writers to aspire to ‘succeed’ but to be, first and foremost, frightened of unsucceeding. The (symbolic) Father’s command is not ‘Thou shalt succeed’ but ‘Thou shalt not fail.’ Since the chances of not receiving any signifier of ‘success’ (e.g. any payment) are significantly greater than the possibilities of receiving the signifier of verifiable success (a seven figure advance), our fear of not succeeding far outweighs our passion for success. We are driven, first and foremost, by the thread of deprivation, denial and insignificance.
This drive is apparent in this interview with the new winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Michelle de Kretser. The novelist finds her success “ludicrous and arbitrary” and dismisses it by saying that “she plans to celebrate by buying shoes”. A much more emphatic response is aroused in De Kretser, however, when the Father figure – which, in Lacanian terms has nothing to do with gender/sexuality and is a term of sexuation, i.e. a biological woman could be the bearer of the Name of the Father – appears in the name of a more experienced and esteemed literary elder, A. S. Byatt: “De Kretser, usually cool and restrained, is brimming with excitement at this encounter [with Byatt during her UK tour]. ‘It was amazing, I met her at last. I was terrified but she was so generous,’ she enthuses.”
Proponents of the cultural cringe hypothesis will view the Australian’s ‘excitement’ at meeting the British writer as yet another sign of this nation’s ineradicable inferiority complex. I instead see it akin to a child’s fearful anticipation – which very much corresponds with the Lacanian jouissance – at meeting a parental figure, and her being ‘terrified’ of a parent’s possible disapproval. That one would describe the experience of being ‘terrified’ as ‘amazing’ may appear absurd, until we consider that enjoyment is primarily about, as Freud would have it, “avoiding suffering” rather than “obtaining pleasure.” According to this discourse, that Byatt’s ‘generosity’ negated De Kretser’s ‘terror’ of coming face-to-face with the former seems to matter more than the latter winning the nation’s most prestigious literary award and, needless to say, the shoes that she may or may not buy with the prize money.
If our perceptions of literary success are occasioned by negativity – i.e. the No of the Father and the prohibition against failure – then our responses to others’ successes are also likely to be quite negative. What intrigues me is that there seems very little sign of the so-called tall poppy syndrome in the most obviously competitive area of social activity in Australia, sport; and yet the supposedly enlightened and ‘communal’ cultured milieu of literature features quite a range of bitterly negative appraisals by authors of works by other, more successful authors. I believe an interesting example of such a phenomenon is the article by Ben Etherington which aims to out last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Anna Funder’s All That I Am, as a work of “uncertain quality [which has been enabled by overly favourable reviewers] to masquerade as significant work.”
I have a few of my own concerns about certain aspects of Funder’s novel, but I also appreciate its many strengths, and, truth be told, I have many concerns about many works of writing, be they prize-winning or not. For Etherington, however, the perceived shortcomings of Funder’s book – established via a fairly pedantic commentary on rather basic elements of narrative such as point of view – amount to more than a harsh critique of the book’s form and make the faultfinding commentator ruminate on the “the ethics of writing a historical novel on the Nazi catastrophe”, culminating in his view that Funder’s book is “in quite bad taste.” Not content with drawing the reader’s attention to the book’s presumed aesthetic and ethical weaknesses, Etherington indulges in a rather fanciful conspiracy theory to account for the novel’s overwhelmingly positive reviews:
Given her profile, I would guess that many of the reviewers have met Funder in one capacity or another: at interviews or, perhaps, dinner parties. There aren’t that many writers and critics in Australia, and we cannot expect that reviewers will not encounter their subjects, particularly when so many are themselves authors.
Etherington’s frustration at “a poor novel” becoming quite successful is not supported and is in fact contradicted by the clearly unfounded, nearly slanderous and, in my view, potentially sexist suggestion that Funder has used her personal charm to solicit positive reviews for her book. If Funder were indeed as a poor writer as suggested earlier in Etherington’s piece, then why would she be afforded such a ‘profile’ and a privileged position in these crucial yet clandestine dinner parties where, according to our critic, the nation’s literary future gets shaped? And if these hypothetical dinner parties are so important and “many writers and critics in Australia” attend them, then how is it that Etherington himself is not present at these so that he too could be seduced by Funder into writing positive reviews of her work? Is he therefore not suggesting that he is not really a member of the grouping “writers and critics in Australia”, and is he not hence undermining the very credibility of his long commentary as a critic on a book by an Australian writer?
I don’t think it takes a Derrida to deconstruct Etherington’s piece, and I very much suspect that those infamous dinner parties are in fact the products of paranoia and anger at the success of another writer. To state the obvious, Funder would not have been subjected to such a treatment had she not been deemed a tall poppy in urgent need of being cut down. But in a capitalist society in which we are indoctrinated into seeing competition as a ‘healthy’ contingency, in which we are objectified into atomised rivals who feel irrationally threatened by the success of others, the very idea of literary success becomes a normative, punitive abstraction. It is one among other dominant literary ideals which I would very much like to see challenged and put under intellectual and philosophical scrutiny.
Rancière, Jacques. Aisthesis. Trans. Zakir Paul. London: Verso, 2013.