This is the fourth and final part of what has been an enlightening discussion for myself with Kalinda Ashton on the issues around politics and writing. I hope it’s been useful for you or at least raised some questions for you to think about.
Part One, Part Two, and Part Three are available if you need to catch up.
I’d like to thank Kalinda for taking the time and effort to thoroughly answer my questions and really get to the heart of it all for my modest little corner of the Internet.
I’d like to congratulate her on making the longlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her novel The Danger Game. It’s an award which is nominated by libraries worldwide so it is quite an honour.
I’d also encourage you to pick up a copy of The Danger Game and I’ll be sure to review it myself when I finish it.
What are some of the common mistakes made about the way you get your point across, in terms of literary devices and the style of writing?
I’m not sure if you mean me, personally, in which case I could write you a long missive, or authors generally, in which case I’m uncertain I have useful things to say.
One of the many difficulties I’ve had with writing with a political investment is to understand that politics can’t be the backdrop to the story it has to be the story. You have to dramatise the political questions and conflicts in an actual narrative, otherwise it isn’t really at the centre of things.
In general I am a very bad plotter and planner. I struggle with structure and so I think about it a lot and talk about it a lot. I am quite drawn to tiny moments, and the everyday in my short stories so this is always hard to translate into an engaging narrative over a longer form. And for a long time I felt trapped by realism – as Helen Garner called it, “realism, bloody realism” – as if I could never write in any other mode, although this is recently changing in my short fiction.
I can be too oblique in my writing to the point of producing incomprehensible sentences. And sometimes I overwrite, reaching for tangled metaphors, which, if you untangle them, don’t tend to mean anything at all.
From time to time I get stuck in a journalistic mode that’s too expositional and not interesting.
I get frustrated with the sense that much of my writing has been almost micro – small moments, a single family, a main character – so the novel I’m working on now has a larger canvas (cliché alert! That’s another of my difficulties…)
One thing I am conscious of is never to write a character with my own politics. I don’t superimpose my political beliefs onto my characters because very few people have exactly the same outlook on the world as I do. I’d love to read a novel about revolutionary politics and its successes and discontents but I wouldn’t write it. Could it be done? I’m not sure; I don’t know who it would interest; it seems memoir is the dominant form for this exploration and yet the notion seems compelling. Segue aside, I don’t make my characters ultra-sophisticated beings or ultra-Left beings. I try to write more closely to the way things are now, to the ordinary.
And I’ve written some fairly reprehensible unreliable narrators and characters.
Perhaps one mistake young writers who want to write novels that challenge how things are make is to have too narrow an idea of what “politics” is. Another is overestimating what a book can actual do in a struggle to change the world.
I think the major challenge in all writing and certainly in fiction from the Left is how to resist the obvious.
Is it always the case that it has to be story first? Or is can you write a story with the message at the fore front if it’s done a certain way?
Hmm, I hadn’t heard this argument about “story first”.
No. I almost always start with a character, a voice, a place or a single scene. Years ago I was briefly enrolled in postgraduate journalism at RMIT and our teacher said that most people want to be journalists because they want to “make a difference”. I think many writers feel the same. Even though it’s almost blasphemy to claim your starting point is that you have something to say, I have no shame about beginning with a message. But then authors have to establish how this story will be told. If you really burrow into a story then the story and the message become Siamese twins – inextricable. But if the clarity of the message consistently triumphs over the story you’ve built – its logic, its momentum, its trajectory – then something has gone wrong. This is not exactly a novel. Either you’ve written something incredibly interesting or you have a weird peculiar hybrid that is monstrous.
If you have a message, complicate it! Find the complexity in it. Write about the contradictions of things. I am by no means suggesting we find sympathy in our hearts for the humanity of George Bush, or notice the kind way a war criminal treats his wife – I have no time for this, that’s the easy option, that’s the obvious and that’s shirking from your ideas. But think about people’s mixed consciousness, the way they can be sophisticated about some things, and unknowing about others. Or how a great campaign can fail because of reversals in circumstance or coincidences or minor defeats, or splits. It’s just about looking at the whole full picture. (I say “just” but I haven’t worked out how to do it yet.)
Some people have said to me that I should write so that can ‘both sides’ can enjoy the story or get something out of it. Is this something you try to do or avoid?
Obviously not, although that’s not to say that my own blindspots and oversights don’t intrude on my writing. I think the notion of “both sides” enjoying your writing is utterly Utopian. For one thing, most of your own side won’t read your novel (statistically speaking: sales of Australian novels are very low at present). For another, you’ll struggle enough to gain the interest of an audience that is already sympatico, or curious about your writing, let alone reaching out to all the neocons out there (or, God forbid, the Tea Party). If you are lucky – and I’m tempted to say this is out of your control – you might manage to somehow capture the zeitgeist of the age and find an audience who reads your work on multiple levels and finds all sorts of competing and incommensurable ideas, reassurances and challenges in it. But this is hardly something you can plan for – it’s not as if we have computer software that can spout out a ‘spirit of the age, taking the temperature of our times, touching a nerve in mass culture’ novel for you!
On the other hand you want to appeal to people who aren’t themselves political machines with their minds made up about all the problems of the world (or, in other words, the 99.9 per cent of the universe at present), otherwise why write a novel? A novel needs to move people, to confront them, to take them places they don’t really want to go and this isn’t exactly a question of sides per se. And even for the ‘converted’ you hope to capture positions and sensibilities in a new way, in another light. Even people who are incredibly politically invested recognise the need to relate to people, movements and things beyond their own ranks.
Because if you just write a statement of principles about how the system ought to work, or a series of points about why it doesn’t or why it is exploitative or oppressive or unequal, you haven’t written a piece of fiction, you’ve written a program for a political organisation.
So I wouldn’t worry about trying to have balance, or ‘both sides’ in your work so long as the side of the story you are telling is imaginative, engaged, multi-faceted and has depth. It needs to work in the structure of fiction. Sometimes things are clarified not by ‘balance’ or so called ‘objectivity’ but by making the case for something strongly, by arguing hard for it. But a novel is not an argument, or not only an argument, it is also observation, creativity, emotion, character, mood, fear, hunger…
Left-wing authors, like any authors, still need to learn craft, control, mechanics of writing, even if they do so with a healthy dose of critical thinking. A great message poorly rendered is not enough.
All this should prompt the question of whether you want to write a novel at all. After all there are forms like creative non-fiction or even journalism that might offer more opportunities to emerging writers who want to speak out about the system.
Do you have any other words of advice for emerging political writers?
Read all the time and read very widely. I mean it – read everything!
Get involved in campaigns because these, more than novels, can change the world. Learn about activism and politics – become a political person if you aren’t already (you probably are!)
Acknowledge that you don’t know it all yet. (That would be advice I would give to my younger self who was so polemical and incensed that I often did not know the arguments of my enemies or even, if they weren’t what I deemed “Left wing enough”, friends, your fellow travellers. No doubt most emerging Left-wing authors know better than I did.) I still know very little so I’m not sure what equips me to give this advice…
Be honest in your writing and be honest with yourself. “No tricks” as the famous catchphrase goes.
Even if you know many of the left-wing theorists ended up on the wrong side of the barricades, or far from the barricades altogether, have a grasp of contemporary Marxist and Feminist cultural studies/literary theory, which helps frame debates about political writing, culture and the role of literature that can enrich your perspective of what it is, exactly, you are trying to do.
Find a network of like-minded people, whether that be a writing group/workshop or trusted readers who can give you fair criticism. Think about what you like and what is effective in the work of authors you admire.
Watch television. Some of the most layered and confronting political writing is happening in TV: think of The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. In one sense or another all of these are about gender, class, ethnicity, power, the legal system, corruption, the role of the police, the education system and ideology.
Read in the tradition that has come before you. Dig out the novels by political activists and the novels that do what you are trying to do (political or none).