BY JEFF SPARROW
‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.’ George Orwell, with his breezy advocacy of a very British ‘common sense’, often seems as much crackpot as savant. But last year, immediately after I’d finished a book, Orwell’s brutal assessment of the process of writing resonated deeply.
For the first time in months, I didn’t face an external deadline. No-one cared whether I wrote or not. Why, then, should I?
When you contemplate abandoning writing, you realise that the practice structures your life, much as persistent drug abuse shapes the junky. Maintaining a steady literary output while holding a paying job entails a constant battle, a perpetual struggle to free up hours you then spend in a room by yourself.
As I soon as I quit the habit, the day expanded, in a fashion that seemed little short of miraculous. Accustomed to waking at five to write before the working day began, I found myself contemplating a remarkable freedom, with an immense amount of time available for other activities.
That’s why Orwell calls writers vain and selfish. To complete a book, we must believe – or, at least, act as if we believe, which amounts to the same thing – in the importance of our project, asserting that importance over and above any other demands on us. We sit with the keyboard rather than with our friends, a choice even more acute when we write – as most of us do – before or after whatever we do to earn a living. Yet, unless you are a bona fide genius (pro tip: you’re not) it’s difficult to explain what exactly renders your book more important than the real live people who surround you.
Orwell’s metaphor of illness makes another obvious point that’s also reliably obfuscated. Contrary to what’s commonly assumed, there’s no reason to link writing with individual self-improvement. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine an activity more calculated to produce psychic damage than producing a book. Psychologists do not, generally, recommend agonising alone in your study for hours on end as a practice conducive to mental health. Introspection, social awkwardness, the development of a host of antisocial and unpleasant character traits: they’re all occupational hazards, difficult for writers to avoid.
So why write?
In his famous essay posing that question, Orwell lists what he calls five ‘great motives.’
The first, which he raises and then just as immediately sets aside, is the need to earn a living. We can dismiss the notion equally quickly.
Yes, you can live by writing in Australia but only, for the most part, by taking on commercial jobs (producing reports or press releases or ad copy or whatever) or finding employment as a teacher or administrator or literary editor. By and large, transforming the manuscript in your bottom drawer into a publishable book – which is what Orwell means – will not generate a viable income.
With admirable frankness, Orwell offers a second reason: ‘sheer egoism’. One writes, he suggests, from a ‘desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.’
Every writer knows those reasons still pertain today.
They do, however, manifest in slightly different forms. Think, for instance, of the enormous enrolments in creative writing. The worsening of professional conditions for literary writers in Australian has, rather unexpectedly, corresponded with a proliferation of writing courses. Indeed, the rise of an academic discipline of creative writing might seem almost perverse in a more and more explicitly vocational university system, given the lack of publication options for the huge numbers of would-be authors assiduously workshopping their poems or short stories.
In part, the explanation lies with the financial opportunities the academy makes available, in the form of scholarships for students or employment for graduates. But the study of writing also attracts those who will never seek work in the field, precisely because literature seems so resistant to commodification that surrounds them. That is, in a society in which the most basic human interactions have been disenchanted by the market, with older values and virtues dissolving into the icy calculation of profit and loss, the romantic notion of authordom becomes more, rather than less, appealing. The writer seems an outsider, hostile to the grubby machinations of commerce, existing on an elevated plane of spirit and thus an implicit rebuke to a soulless world that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
That’s the basis of the otherwise baffling phenomenon of students who desperately want to publish books but don’t actually read them. As the economist Hans Abbing argues, the desire to become an artist (or writer) can reflect ‘a social need to have a sacred place’ and so writers ‘offer a romantic alternative to a society of more or less anonymous and replaceable employees – from managers to street sweepers’. Writing functions, then, less as a form of communication and more as a statement of identity: I write poems because I am an authentic, creative person, unlike the drones who surround me.
If this does not seem particular satisfactory, Orwell offers two other reasons for writing.
We might write, he suggests, either because of a ‘historical impulse’ or, perhaps, for a ‘political purpose’. The first he glosses as a ‘desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. The second he explains as a:
desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
That’s the basis of Orwell’s famous conclusion:
The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.
Here, then, we rationale a basis for writing that seems, at first glance, rather more attractive than, say, a desire to score points against adults who snubbed us when we were bookish teens.
After all, Orwell’s contemporary, WH Auden, famously referred to the thirties as a ‘low, dishonest decade’, a description admirably suited to our own times. We, too, live in an era in which, as Orwell says elsewhere, official politics largely consists of a defense of the indefensible, which is why our statesmen have normalised so many euphemisms (pre-emptive war, enhanced interrogations, border protection) in which to cloak themselves as they slouch cheerfully toward hitherto undreamed of barbarisms. In the face of widespread deceit, Orwell’s historical impulse takes on an obvious importance. We might be incapable of holding the perpetrators of today’s atrocities to account but we can, perhaps, provide materials through which history might make its own judgement. Think of Wikileaks’ Iraq War Logs, a trove of documents about that misbegotten invasion rendered available for posterity, or the recent publication of incident data from Australian detention centres: minor blows for memory against forgetting.
It would be nice, then, to justify our writing in that light, to explain the necessity for our manuscripts on the basis that, in Orwell’s words, they ‘find out true facts and record them’.
Yet obvious problems arise as soon as you start to think the argument through. In a digital era, is it literature via which we record facts? After all, Edward Snowden’s holed up in Hong Kong because he leaked data, not because he wrote a poem.
Similar objections might be raised to Orwell’s desire for a writing that ‘push[es] the world in a certain direction’.
Yes, there’s an obvious resonance in his argument that ‘in a period like our own’, it’s nonsense to say a writer can avoid taking sides. Today, as in the thirties, you might not be interested in politics – but politics has a very decided interest in you.
But having mentioned Auden, let’s look more closely at his example, for his Spanish poems are invariably invoked as canonical instances of interventionist literature: writing as an immediate attempt to push back against the rise of fascism. But what does Auden actually say? Here’s ‘Spain’.
To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs, The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion; To-morrow the bicycle races Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death, The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder; To-day the expending of powers On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
This, quite evidently, is not an argument for writing in the service of politics. On the contrary, it’s an argument for political writers to abandon literature. If, says, Auden, you want to intervene in the Civil War, publish a pamphlet rather than a poem. Expend your powers on a text that you know to be ephemeral, because that’s what the fight against fascism requires.
So, if, in the 1930s, poetry (to steal another Auden line) ‘made nothing happen’, what does that mean for writers today? By the late thirties, Auden had become something of celebrity, a public figure whose doings and opinions featured regularly in the press. How many poets in Australia today enjoy a comparable status? Actually, books of poetry circulate in minuscule quantities to a very narrow demographic – and the situation for most literary novels or serious non-fiction is not so very different.
If literature ever could substitute for activism, it cannot today.
Where does that leave us? Orwell offers one last rationale for writing.
We might write, he says, for ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, a term he glosses as follows:
Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story....
It is a curiously understated description. In Orwell’s essay, ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ seems almost akin to a fondness for crossword puzzles: a basically trivial predilection for word nerds.
But, of course, it’s not trivial at all but the fulcrum on which the whole discussion can pivot.
Words, arranged in certain ways, achieve startling effects. They create beauty or terror or nausea or joy: they become, in other words, art. Orwell notes that, as a youth, lines from Paradise Lost sent ‘shivers down my backbone’. That’s what writing can do: it can produce literature, a phenomenon of value and inherent worth. The anti-war pamphlets from the thirties might today leave us cold; Auden, however, does not.
If we accept that, we can re-consider Orwell’s entire argument.
It’s true that, as a historical record, literature might not substitute for a Wikileaks’ document dump. Nonetheless, the novel and the poem possess their own methods by which they can convey to us the power to ‘see things as they are’. If a portrait reveals more about its subject than a photograph, we might equally argue that it’s literature and only literature preserves for posterity the experience of life in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Likewise, a poem or a novel should not be understood as a political intervention comparable to a protest or a strike or an election campaign. Nonetheless, literature can help us to grasp the world in a new way, can illuminate futures not yet possible, can foster empathy with people from different eras or cultures, can generate emotions that we might not otherwise articulate, and do various other things besides. All of that is political – albeit in its own fashion and its own register.
It’s worth stressing these fairly obvious points, if only because Orwell’s ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ does not necessarily register in the Australian writing scene as much as one might expect. Or, rather, if it does, it’s often in the trivial ‘joy of words’ sense, rather than as an appreciation of literature’s genuine potential.
That is, if writing really matters, then discussions of writing necessarily become contentious, as writers and readers fight for the techniques and forms that take the art forward.
‘The critic,’ says Walter Benjamin, another of the great intellectuals of the thirties, ‘is the strategist in the literary battle.’
Where, we might ask, is the literary battle in Australia today being waged?
For Benjamin, when it comes to writing, ‘he who cannot take sides should keep silent’.
By contrast, today we face an environment in which, as the book pages shrink, criticism often gives way to book notices as a series of puffs, with many reviewers openly acknowledging they won’t write about books they don’t like. An understandable attitude, no doubt, arising from a genuine compassion for the struggles authors have promoting books to a largely indifferent culture.
But it’s symptomatic of a shift from the importance of writing to the importance of writers, which is quite a different matter.
For Benjamin, the critic ‘approach[es] a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby’, an image that’s more shocking today than when he wrote, not because we’ve changed our attitudes to cannibalism but because we’ve changed our attitudes to books.
To illustrate, let’s return to our creative writing student, enrolled in a course to write poetry even though he never reads any contemporary poets. Someone writing on that basis does not want discussion, no matter how well informed, about whether the particular poetics techniques he employs suits his material. On the contrary, anything other than fulsome praise will be received as a mortal insult, since, for him, the point of the work lies in less in its art than in what the production of art that says about producer.
This might all seem like a diversion from the question ‘why write?’ but it’s not.
In Overland, we’ve been arguing for some time now about the importance of recreating, particularly for political writers, what might be (rather grandly) called a ‘counter public’ sphere, an environment in which the production and reception of writing could take place in a milieu hostile to the market and its values. That is, the radical authors of the thirties produced the work that they did because they were immersed in an oppositional culture with its own oppositional infrastructure. Overland’s Rjurik Davidson quotes Terry Eagleton’s comments on the environment that produced both Benjamin and (to a lesser extent) Orwell:
In the Weimar Republic, the working-class movement was not only a redoubtable political force; it was also equipped with its own theatres and choral societies, clubs and newspapers, recreation centres and social forums. It was these conditions which helped to make possible a Brecht and a Benjamin, and to shift the role of the critic from isolated intellectual and to political functionary. In the Britain of the 1930s, agitprop groups, the Unity theatre, the workers’ Film and Photo League, The Workers’ Theatre movement, workplace branches of the Left Book Club, the London Worker’s Film Society and a range of other institutions reflected elements of this rich counterculture.
In our time, most of the countercultural institutions produced by the radical upsurge in the seventies have long since disappeared, as neoliberalism continues to reshape the literary culture in ways that are fundamentally hostile to literature. And that’s the biggest difficulty in talking about writing today.
If we possessed structures through which literature could be sheltered (at least to a degree) from market forces, if we could enlist aspiring writers in organisations dedicated to changing the world, would that not transform the way writing was understood? If, for instance, your work’s shaped by a community of readers and writers committed to a common aesthetic and political goal, that strips some of the selfishness from the process. Likewise, could we not imagine how different literary and political structures might transform our desire to be thought clever from a simple egoism to something more social? There’s nothing wrong, after all, in wanting to be remembered after your death: it becomes a vanity only if it’s an end in and of itself.
Most of all, if we want to explore the relationship between aesthetic enthusiasms and political goals, we need to recognise that we cannot do so alone, that the writing we want exists in a dialogue with writers, critics and institutions. You can already see a glimmering of this today: you’re far more likely, these days, to find serious literary criticism in the Sydney Review of Books (a not-for-profit site established precisely for that reason) than in the sadly diminished newspaper review sections.
A yearning for something more meaningful than the emptiness of the commodity’s perpetual circulation is perfectly understandable. The problem is, we won’t find it in the old romantic dream of authordom. Writers are not special people: anyone who spends time in their company knows that all too well. Indeed, they’re often terrible people, for all the reasons stated above – but that doesn’t mean that writing itself is necessarily without value.
So why write?
Last year, I agonised over the question for several months, before deciding that, in some ways, it’s wrongly posed. I went back to writing out of habit, because I felt restless and directionless when I didn’t. I write now because I can. I write because the process clarifies ideas for me. I write because I can, sometimes, find an audience. I write for all kinds of reasons, some of which I understand and some of which I don’t.
But I also think that the real debate – the debate that we need as a matter of urgency – relates less to our individual choices than to the collective circumstances in which those choices take place. Yes, we type at our keyboards as individuals. But our writing has meaning in a particular context, a context in which we can and should shape together. And by doing so, by seeing ourselves as part of a community, a collective project, we can transform our own relationships with our work.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland literary journal. He's the author of Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship, Killing: Misadventures in Violence and Communism: A Love Story, the co-editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within. He writes regularly for various publications on politics and culture. On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.