I’m invited to a gala. It’s the graduation show for a group of creative writing undergraduates. The small audience is filled mostly with suburban parents, a few of the local glittering literary crowd, several conservatively attired academics, and students that run the gamut from grunge to emo to club. There are readings. A dashing young poet reads in a deep, deep voice. I’m not sure what the poem is about, but it lilts and bends and winds in the lyrical manner of Dr. Seuss. Another student reads a short story about siblings and pets. My favourite is the young woman who goes into character and enumerates her lovers, all dreadful of course, until she arrives at bachelor number six. He’s wonderful, but married. (A few of us glance at the VIP of the evening, a woman much older than the reader and known by some of us for her biting enumeration of lovers, most of whom are similarly attached. She shifts in her seat uncomfortably.)
The work is better than I expected, well-crafted, polished; but because these students are young, so are their subjects. It’s a cruel trick, I think. When you have time to write, your experience of life is middling at best; you are left to write about such things as sibling rivalry, adolescent alienation and the travails of share houses. Later, hammered and burnished by experience, when you are brimming with fantastic material, the demands of life leave little time to write; every moment of industry must be stolen.
Looking around at the parents, it’s clear these students haven’t had to do much for themselves. They’ve led comfortable lives in an easygoing middle class environment. I wonder what they will do next year. I wonder how many will pursue creative writing any further than this evening.
I sit in a café waiting for D. I’m intentionally early, stealing a moment of solitude. I order a coffee and skim the papers. An item about a university’s new initiative catches my attention. It seems that in this climate of collaboration and joint ventures, someone had the idea to combine the creative industries with an institute for health and biomedicine. Hmmn—that could be interesting.
The doorway darkens. I look up expecting my friend, but it isn’t him. I check my watch, sip my coffee, read on. A sentence jumps out. In order to attract Generation Y students, the university plans to look into courses in cosmetics, body art and theatrical costuming. It isn’t clear how it might interest health scientists. Before I can ponder this too much, however, my friend arrives.
D is a moderately successful writer of two novels. A third is expected to be published next year. He is lively and entertaining, full of anecdotes, interesting news, and hilarious yarns. I barely get a word in. He sees the top of a novel sticking out from my bag and asks about it. It’s Malouf’s Remembering Babylon.
“Adair, Adair, Adair,” D moans hopelessly. “You have to stop reading these dead white guys.”
“Malouf isn’t dead.”
“I didn’t mean it in a literal sense.”
“But this is a wonderful book. Wonderful. The kind of book that makes me want to give up writing altogether. Never will I write anything so good.”
He rolls his eyes with great exaggeration. “We’re talking about now. Today. What’s happening around us. Not four hundred years ago. Not a hundred years ago. Not twenty or even ten. Now.” He emphasises the last word.
We argue collegially for the next quarter of an hour, each of us staking out territory, making claims that support our views, issuing strong opinions. What we’re debating isn’t the value of past literature compared with that of current literary production, even though that’s our topic. What we’re really discussing runs underneath our lively words. My extensive training in the canon is opposed to his irregular dips into the classics. And what it comes down to is this: I’m a reader who has become a writer; he’s a writer who reads.
There is a difference. In his view, I’m mired in the past, weighed down by heavy, dusty, worm-ridden volumes that are meaningless to the contemporary moment. In my view, he’s rudderless. I don’t see how he can write without knowing what’s been written, and when, why, where, how.
We don’t settle the question, of course. In a friendly way, we agree to disagree and part amicably. I rush off to pick up my six-year-old from school. She has a birthday party to attend tomorrow, and we must buy a gift. Too suddenly, I’m back in the real world, far away from literary discussions about the worth of the Western canon.
The Bargain Store
I try to direct her to a bookstore, but she pulls me in another direction. In spite of my protestations that the goods are cheap, my stubborn daughter insists on shopping at Crazy Clark. I’ve learned to choose my battles with six-year-olds, and this one doesn’t seem worth the fight. She marches up and down the aisles, choosing a makeup set, a packet of tattoos, a feather boa. In a flash, I’m reminded of the article I read in the paper earlier that day—about the university that plans to offer courses in cosmetics, body art, and theatrical costuming. I have to chuckle. Are universities now like bargain stores, brimming with flashy goods, all cheap style and no substance?
On the drive home, my daughter occupies herself with a book, and I am free to think. What I find most worrying about the university proposal is the statement that they are tailoring it to appeal to Generation Y. Does this mean that today’s undergraduates aren’t interested in serious subjects? Are universities so desperate to fill classrooms with young bodies that they are catering to what they think Generation Y wants from education? Does Generation Y really want to study about improvements in cosmetics or tattooing designs? Aren’t they a little interested in history, philosophy, literature, mathematics, science? Why shouldn’t we demand that they bend to the academy? Why should the academy scramble to attract and keep their attention in these flashy, flimsy ways?
At home, I receive a call from an acquaintance. After a little small talk, she gets to the point of her call. She tells me that she thinks that others can learn from her divorce and the two awful years that led to it. She wants to write a novel and bluntly asks if I’ll help her. I tell her that writing a novel isn’t as easy as it seems, explain that I have very little time even for my own work, refer her to the Queensland Writer’s Centre, and wish her luck. When we hang up, I’m flushed with annoyance. Because everyone uses language and everyone knows how to string words together to some extent, everyone imagines they can write. No one thinks about the years and years of daily practice; the deferral of immediate financial resources for uncertain future success; the tedium, the doubt, the judgement and rejection.
The Café Again
At the café again a few days later, I follow another story that’s being debated in the pages of The Australian. In “Lost for Words” (The Weekend Australian Review, Dec. 2-3), Rosemary Neill points out a general lack of commitment to the teaching of Australian literature: The University of Sydney possesses the sole remaining chair in all of Australia. Peter Holbrook goes further in “Literary Paradise May Soon Be Lost” (The Australian, Dec. 14), claiming that “we seem to be witnessing a disinheriting of the national mind—the…disappearing of our literary heritage.”
Not only aren’t units in Australian literature being taught, but courses in all literatures are now regularly folded into departments renamed ‘Cultural Studies’. The former English department at the University of Queensland is now The School for English, Media Studies and Art History. They offer units in everything it seems: literary theory, women’s studies, linguistics, media studies, drama studies, museum studies, film and TV, communication, even something known as ‘contemporary studies’. Each of these areas provides its own version of ‘the text’, and each of these competes with literary masterworks. Shakespeare is challenging to read; so is Cervantes, Flaubert, Dickens, Gogol, Joyce. It’s much easier to watch a film or a TV show, to analyse a magazine article or deconstruct a rock concert. I sigh.
Z breezes in. She’s a successful award-winning novelist and a lecturer in a university-based creative writing program. Several of the graduates at the gala were her students, in fact. I lay the problem in her lap.
“We tell them to read. We say over and over that they will only be good writers if they are good readers. But at the moment there’s no requirement that they take a literature unit. The university offers only three anyway—as electives. There was a conference last month for the Australian Association of Writing Programs. Most of us agreed that we were producing graduates with an expectation of immediate fame and riches who haven’t read much of anything—not literature, philosophy or history. No one really knows the answer, how to fix the problem.”
“It seems odd,” I interject. “I mean, if someone gets a degree in sociology, they need to know something about the history of the discipline; they need to have read really important sociological works, right? And yet, the next generation of writers graduate without having ever read Milton or Dostoyevsky, Proust or Woolf.”
“Yep.” Z sips her coffee glumly.
“Maybe,” I propose, “maybe creative writing programs shouldn’t be offered at the undergraduate level. Maybe people should only study writing after they’ve gotten a BA in something else.”
“You’re probably right, but it’ll never happen. Creative writing courses are too popular. They are big money-makers, and courses in English literature are not. They’re considered old-fashioned. I hate to say it, but the canon is out.”
The Long Walk Home
On a meandering walk home along the river, I consider this dismal state of affairs.
Postmodernism has had a dramatic influence on our lives. All texts are now considered equal. Low art in all its forms is equal to high art. Big Brother is placed next to Shakespeare, Blake and Yeats. Don’t get me wrong: I love it when artists break rules, experiment and push boundaries. But I like to know they’re in control of what they’re doing, that they know which rules they’re breaking and why, that they’re motivated by ideas and pursuing the process with rigour.
These days every life story is equal to every other. And everyone is cashing in on it, claiming 15 minutes of fame (or more!). We tune in nightly to watch everyday people doing all sorts of things: becoming idols, losing big, thinking they can dance, surviving, nipping and tucking, being made over by queer guys. I hear people everywhere complaining about the lack of good Australian drama. But unlike reality programs, dramatic TV shows are expensive to produce. And we don’t get to act in them.
A few months ago, some cheeky editors submitted work of Patrick White’s to several publishers and agents. It was unilaterally rejected as not up to a publishable standard. More likely, they felt his work wasn’t commercially viable.
It all comes down to money. Publishers, production companies, and sadly, even universities are all concerned with creating a product and having clear commercial outcomes.
At the moment, our generation is the one making decisions about Australia’s cultural experience. We are the torchbearers. Don’t we then have a responsibility to see that White is read and valued, that interesting, provocative TV and films are made, that young writers are required to read masterpieces before they are awarded degrees, that we don’t design silly courses that cater to the lowest common denominator? I think so. Generation Y should be held to high standards, no matter how they complain and resist. This is a battle worth fighting.
These thoughts are interrupted as I arrive home. My teenage daughter greets me excitedly. As she embarks on her story, I wonder if fourteen-year-olds are considered part of Generation Y, and if not, if there is a name for her and her friends yet.
“You won’t believe what I found! I was at the library, and I was thinking about reading The Count of Monte Cristo again, and I found this at the back, and I copied it, and I’m going to read every one of these books!” Breathlessly, she hands me some pages. At the top, Treasury of Classics, and underneath, a comprehensive list of some of the best works of Western literature, from Alighieri to Zola, including:
Alighieri, Aristotle, Austen, Baudelaire, Behn, Bennett, Blake, Bronte, Butler, Byron, Carroll, Cervantes, Chaucer, Chekov, Chesterton, Childers, Cleland, Collins, Conrad, Cooper, Crane, DeQuincey, Defoe, Dickens, Disraeli, Dostoyevsky, Doyle, DuMaurier, Dumas, Edgeworth, Eliot, Emerson, Fielding, Firbank, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Franklin, Galsworthy, Gaskell, Gide, Gissing, Gogol, Grahame, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry, Homer, Hugo, Ibsen, James, Jolley, Joyce, Kafka, Kipling, Kierkegaard, Lawrence, Lawson, Leroux, London, Maupassant, Melville, Meridith, Milton, Munro, Peacock, Poe, Proust, Rolfe, Scott, Shakespeare, Shaw, Shelley, Smollett, Stein, Sterne, Stevenson, Stoker, Swift, Thackeray, Toqueville, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Twain, Verne, Virgil, Voltaire, Wharton, White, Wilde, Woolf, Wordsworth, Wren, Yeats, Zola.
I hug her. “You go, girl!”
Silently, I add: Hold us to the standard you deserve.
By Adair Jones.
(First published in Arts Hub in 2006.)