15 Apr 2010

Think Before You Write

By Stephen Orr
These days it seems everyone is writing a novel — but that doesn't mean everyone should. Stephen Orr issues a stern warning about where all this is heading ...
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.

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Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 11:26

An inherent part of believing yourself to be a born writer is taking action to convince everyone else they've got no business trying.

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 12:24

Writing is creative expression. Everyone has the right to express creatively. Value is often in the eye of the beholder. One of the fantastic things about today is the rise in self-publishing ... given the discrimination which exists in traditional publishing and the often poorly written and poorly edited results which are churned out by the 'professional' writers which such publishers favour.
there can never be too many books just as there can never be too many paintings.
It's very simple, people write a book and publish it, probably themselves and it gets read or it does not. But their creative expression has been brought to life and that is always a gift.

David Grayling
Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 12:41

I've written a couple of novels. Only the silverfish have read them.

But I have written a number of books so I must've got something right!

I agree with Ros. Bringing creativity to life is essential if you want to survive in this material, greed-driven world.

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 13:45

Are there any more novels to be written in this culture?

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 14:19

This article comes across as a cliché in itself. Every once and a while I read columns from writers who profess that everyone else should stop trying.

It's extremely elitist that only a special breed of person should write a novel. Indeed, I think not enough people are given the chance to write. For ordinary working class people, creativity is stifled. Most people who dream of writing (or singing or painting or acting) can't because they're weighed down by a time-consuming, mind numbing job.

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 14:22

"a novel based on the disappearance of the Beaumont Children".... why is library microfilm any different to wikipedia plot skeletons?

I guess my sense of irony isn't well developed enough to appreciate a bitchy satire on the urge to write which itself has nothing to say, other than a half-glimpsed tryst between the primacy of market forces and the humanitarian task of writing. Houellebecq built a career on it, but then, he's got style....

Stephen, I'll add your name to Pobje's as someone on New Matilda to avoid.

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 14:30

I think we're all wrong to be concentrating on novels here – what we really need to clamp down on is satire. How can we discourage would-be satirists from thinking they have something funny to say, and prevent their scourge of lame, facetious commentary from spreading further into public discourse?

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 15:30

Yes, the thing about the article which came across most strongly was how it was not funny. Then again, if it is Stephen's creative expression to try to write satire, however badly, then I support him in that.

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 16:03

If this article is meant to be funny, I'm not laughing. And I'll keep writing until the day I can't write another word.

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 23:09

Gosh, some people seem to have taken this rather seriously.
Personally I read it as a light-hearted encouragement to would-be writers, full of good-natured jibes and tips about pitfalls to avoid.
Why, it even points out the existence of the CAL/Scribe Fiction Prize!

Posted Friday, April 16, 2010 - 00:24

This is all very good advice, but what you don't understand Stephen is how good my novel will be. Really. As soon as I finish it.

Posted Friday, April 16, 2010 - 00:27

Also, Stephen, I'm concerned that you're making your own lattes.

Have you thought about the number of baristas who would be left unemployed and penniless if novelists started making their own coffee?

Kim Hart
Posted Friday, April 16, 2010 - 09:11

So essentially Mr Orr's opinion is that only those with worldly experience such as a high school teacher should be permitted to write, yet they should obtain that experience before the age of 35. Anyone in their 60's certainly couldn't match the wealth of life experience possessed by a South Australian school teacher.
And as aluded to above Mr Orr's most recent novel is a fictionalisation of the disappearance of the Beaumont children which can hardly be the product of his experiences unless he is infact Grant Beaumont and I suspect that he is not (not to judge the book itself as I have yet to read it.)
Having said that I wholeheartedly agree that novels pertaining to vampires, adolescent magicians and government/church conspiracies should at the very least be regulated. Despite its commercial success The Da Vinci Code is still one of the worst books I have ever suffered through.

Posted Friday, April 16, 2010 - 10:28

Can we preclude all 'expat journalists' who have:

1. gone to italy/france/new york/delhi/add desired city to freelance
2. complain about the immaturity/lack of sophistication/crap food/add desired gripe of their aust east coast homleand
3. meet vivacious, eccentric locals, have amaaazing cultural experiences on vespas/rickshaws/ yellow cabs/ laneways/apartments with only staircase access
4. fall in love with local or follow expat love there
5. detail their hours in bureaucratic mazes with smoking, coffee drinking disinterested officials looking for houses/jobs/visas/add your desired drama
6. wax lyrical about the bright light of their homeland
7. drag their foreign partner home

from writing their 'memoirs' - just put it on facebook like everyone else

Posted Monday, April 19, 2010 - 14:21

Stephen, you nailed it!! All the naysayers on this site slagging you off are obviously the people clogging up the system with their vanity project right to express themselves creattively and are basically making life very difficult for the serious folk who may be dedicating their life to this kind of thing. Benjamin and Ros, some people should really keep their self expression for close family members and while writing is not really elitist, as in class based, it does require skill that really only comes after many years of dedication. the publishing industry needs a good colonic to flush all the half hewned turds away. And, who cares if it's snobbish, the blatant truth is that hardly anyone actually has anything to say, regardless of how finely huned are their descriptions of falling leaves.... but Stephen, you do appear to be on slightly shaky ground after you criticised the wikipediaing of finding a story after you did something about the Beaumont case.

Kim Hart
Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 09:41

ChuchoFlores, elitism does not need to be class based. A good example of elitism for illustrative purposes is tertiary education. If one was to come from a middle class background and choose to undertake a manual trade one would be looked down upon by the person from a working class background who chose to attend university. That is elitism in all its preening finery.
Mr Orr suggests that one shouldn’t undertake the task of expressing oneself unless one has something to say. I tend to agree as it would make the task of deciding what book to read next a whole lot easier if only important and serious novels were available. However I will illustrate a point with the following facts; according to his own website Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold 80 million copies, the Harry Potter books have sold at least 400 million and the Twilight series has sold well over 100 million copies.
Undoubtedly those listed above have very little of any seriousness to say and indeed are all complete rubbish, however it is clear that there are plenty who wish to read them. Publishing being a business as it is it would seem foolish to suggest that publishing houses should kill the goose that laid the golden egg and discontinue the publication of the rubbish (which sells at astonishing levels) which in turn would prevent them from publishing the poor selling but important and serious novel.
In other words Mr Orr et al it is the dreadful hacks who allow you to not only pontificate about your own brilliance and intellectual superiority, but to be published at all.

Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 17:15

not too shabby a point Kim. I like it. In fact, I like you. But, once the means of production fell into the hands of the masses, it really infused the industry with a lot of frivolout time wasters... but you aqre probably right? Without shane warne-esque celebrity cookbooks the publishing houses probably couldn't afford to keep and industry afloat. But surely what I just wrote is a load of crap, because obviously they did it well before cricketing biographies came to the rescue. there has always been a penny dreadful slush market to keep things pumping along. i can't put my finger on exactly what my gripe is, but everytime someone tells me they are writing a novel or that they might one day, I just want to punch them out...

Kim Hart
Posted Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - 09:26

Please don't get me thinking about ashes tour diaries, indeed the only book of that kind actually worth reading is Tom Gleisner's 'Warwick Todd' series and even then thay are good for a chuckle on the loo and never wax serious (I try not to feels too serious on the loo.) I guess in the good old days publishers churned out good books because well they loved good books. Now the industry has transformed into something totally different. One could write the most compelling and interesting novel ever written but if is difficult for a publisher to envisage its marketing and sales it will never see the light of day.
Yes I agree that the industry is now plagued with time wasters and I think it is a matter of intellectual physics (I think I just invented a term) Once publishers started to publish some lesser quality writing in order to make a buck, they encouraged slightly worse writers to try their hand and so forth in a case of 'I could do better than that.' Now the quality of some books are so terrible that anyone who reads them could feel that if such rubbish got published then so could theirs and the publishers play the game. All the while the standards required by the mass market continue to lower in line with the standards available. It is an artistic juggernaut which as it grows seems more and more unstoppable.
Why are people afraid of Sartre, Waugh, Orwell and Camus and so enamoured with Stephen King et al?
Just to return to my first comment (and yes I DID use Wikipedia for this) Ricky Ponting alone has 'written' eight books, how can such a man have so much of interest to say?
You make good points also Chucho and indeed I like you too.

James Waites
Posted Friday, April 23, 2010 - 05:02

You fail to mention the emergent Taliban novel written by men with their hands cut off and by women with typewriters under their burqas - for people who have had their eye balls pulled out by CIA agents and can no longer even enjoy a 'celebrity live reading' having had their ear drums blown out by multiple roadside bombings. Or should this be the plot of a novel about the scarcity of Taliban novels written by an expatriate with a job as a translator at the UN - or perhaps a blond Aussie surf chick who has never left the Gold Coast but loves to dress up in a burqa and pretends to write with no hands.

That Carl Williams story that's be going round: 'Some fat guy got killed by being hit on the had with a piece of gym equipment'. There's a story for you - moral, mythical, mordant - and a one-liner to boot. I read it in Matilda.

I think I can go back to bed now feeling really good about having contributed to this debate. If not history, let onliners be the judge! Or is history dead? Do onliners exist or are they really Twilighters in disguise?


It's finding an end to a story these day that's the real problem. As Brother Patrick used to say: 'a final resounding paragraph'!