Think Before You Write


The last few years have seen a rash of post-apocalyptic novels and films: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming; Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the list goes on. Each is concerned with a particular scourge, a viral outbreak, or perhaps a social collapse triggered by an unnamed cause. Perhaps the latter is intended to sustain a moral focus, or maybe the authors just didn’t know or care how their apocalypse was supplied. Faced with the challenge of coming up with plausible or interesting causes, they decided to skip that part.

But here’s my question: what if there’s something in our future far worse than all these nightmarish visions? What if the real threat to our culture is something far more insidious? What if, in the next 10 or 20 years, every adult Australian comes to believe it’s their destiny to write a novel? What if five, six or seven million people sit down at their computer, churn out a half-baked story plan choked with clichéd plot lines and one-dimensional characters, and then actually go on to complete a book?

The implications are truly terrifying. Publishers would have to rent warehouses to store their slush pile, thousands of unemployed workers, the aged and infirm, even the blind, would have to be put into service reading manuscripts. Rejection emails would be hurtling through cyberspace at an unprecedented rate, colliding, spilling their false sentiments ("Dear Sir, We read your submission with great interest …") and leading hundreds of potential Hemingways to slash their wrists, or worse, try their hand at a crime novel, or worse again, a memoir. If that happens, there would only be about two weeks before total social collapse.

Far-fetched? Maybe not. The reading public may be giving up on the literary novel in favour of vampires, apocalyptic films and computer games; but universities, TAFE colleges, the WEA, local councils, and indeed everyone else, is hooked on the notion of book-lust, or at least write-lust. Today there are at least a dozen Australian universities offering PhDs, Masters and undergraduate degrees in creative writing. Generally these are undertaken by those with minimal life experience, or anything interesting to say, the idea being that writing can be learnt. The notion of a born writer becomes as quaint and obsolete as a thatched roof.

Well-off, well-educated, upper-middle-class white kids sit in tutorials dreaming of Churchill Fellowships spent researching novels based on the sex life of Marie Antoinette’s third assistant chamber maid. The names DeLillo, Auster and Foster Wallace are invoked (but not necessarily read) as offices full of failed writers hum with laptops churning out their own university-subsidised masterpieces.

I’m not the first to have these concerns. In 1944 George Orwell went to war with The Writer magazine in his own newspaper column. "I am more interested in the advertisements, which take up more than a quarter of the space," he wrote. "The majority of them are from people who profess to be able to teach you how to make money out of writing. A surprising number undertake to supply you with ready-made plots." And he gave some examples:

"PLOTS: in vivid scenes. With striking opening lines for actual use in story. Specimen conversation, including authentic dialect …"

"PLOTS: our plots are set out in sequence, all ready for write up. No remoulding necessary just the requisite clothing of words …"

Clothing of words, indeed. It’s my view that writers should be born, dragged through childhood and arrive, deeply scarred, imperfect and with something to say, into the literary landscape. Creative writing is essentially a Darwinian activity — only the fittest should survive, taking years to find a voice, get their words written and find a readership. Writing is not, and never will be, a form of therapy, an activity to while away the long empty hours of retirement. If you haven’t had the drive to get something down on paper before your 60th birthday then you probably didn’t have anything that urgent to say.

That, I believe, is the whole point. By writing, will you add anything to the culture? Will you tell us anything new about greed, lust, desire, ambition or — God help us — love? Do we really need another long, torturous description of a forest? Do we really want to hear about other people’s marriage problems when we can’t deal with our own?

Technology is one of the culprits behind this glut. Years ago it was hard to write a book. You had to scribble 300 pages worth of blah blah, he said, she said, type it up on your mum’s Olivetti, go through it with a red pen, return to the Olivetti, work out how to change the ribbon, type it up again, do it up in a nice green folder and send it to Penguin.

Now you just switch on the laptop, Google "MARIE ANTOINETTE’S THIRD ASSISTANT CHAMBER MAID", print off a Wikipedia article, give it a read, make a latte and get started. A few weeks later you’ve got a first draft. Email a few agents, send in a sample chapter and Bob’s your uncle.

So, what can be done? How can we limit the number of novels written in this country every year?

First, we have to understand that a PhD cannot be a novel and a novel cannot be a PhD. That will get rid of quite a few.

Second, potential writers should be made to work as shearers, miners, teachers and taxi drivers for a minimum of three years. Then, and only then, should they be allowed to own a computer.

Third, all writing competitions should be abolished. Such competitions raise an unrealistic sense of achievement in their winners and runners-up, and a tragically enhanced determination in many of their losers. This is the equivalent of feeding an orphan meat, a mistake that Mrs Sowerberry didn’t make a second time. First novels have a notoriously short life on the bookshelf, and little gold stickers don’t help the problem.

Fourth, all self-help writing publications should be banned. Generally, I’m no supporter of censorship or book burning, but in this instance I’ll make an exception. As Orwell said, "I do not wish to say anything offensive, but to anyone who is inclined to respond to the sort of advertisement quoted above, I offer this consideration: If these people really know how to make money out of writing why aren’t they just doing it? Apart from any other consideration, they would be raising up hordes of competitors for themselves."

Fifth, more government-sponsored activities should be offered for the aged to keep them away from word processors. Bowls, macramé, leatherwork (but probably not reading) should be encouraged. Newsletters from state writers’ centres are full of advertisements from seniors asking for help to write their memoirs. Such writing should be allowed, perhaps even encouraged, but only for the amusement of close family.

Sixth, the Prime Minister must commission a mandatory nationwide cliché filtering system through which all new fiction is passed. If plotlines have been copied, even with minor variations, the work should be destroyed. An example is the story about a troubled man or woman returning to the country town where they grew up (generally because the old man’s dying of cancer). Same with road trips involving relatives the hero has failed to connect with, or menopausal women spending a few years "finding themselves" in Tuscany.

Seventh, it’s time manuscript appraisal agencies were banned. It’s not fair on anyone when a failed writer is asked to read 120,000 words of fiction from a fellow hack. The assessed gets to part with $600 and the assessor gets to write a 3000-word report on what’s wrong with the piece. Of course, they can’t really say they think it stinks. The only person who benefits is the clever one who started the agency (more Darwinism). These people are the equivalent of the men who sold pans to miners on the goldfields. Or the publishers of writing magazines. Orwell again: "The Writer runs its own Literary Bureau in which manuscripts are ‘criticised by acknowledged experts’ at so much a thousand words. If each of these various teachers had even ten successful pupils a week they would between them be letting loose on the market some fifteen thousand successful writers per annum." (In other words, ask for your money back.)

Meanwhile, it looks like the world will need a lot more literary critics. But with the competition getting fiercer all the time, how will we be sure they are trustworthy? We may be facing a brave new world of graft, with exposés on A Current Affair of the sexual favours sought and granted in the port-a-loos behind the Adelaide Writers’ Week tents.

Before that happens I implore all of you to think twice before starting that next novel. Allen and Unwin did well by limiting the Australian/Vogel Literary Award to entrants under 35, but the new CAL Scribe Fiction Prize, for writers over that age, may cause incalculable damage. It took myxomatosis and the calicivirus to stop rabbits, but their numbers have bounced back.

These are desperate measures, I grant you, but something needs to be done, and quickly. Because either we act now or we’ll all find ourselves out on the road, pushing a shopping trolley full of books, worrying how we can protect our young son’s mind from predatory bands of crazed novelists.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.