Features Australia

Bad writing

22 October 2016

9:00 AM

22 October 2016

9:00 AM

YHBT. YHL. HAND. This abbreviation stands for ‘YOU HAVE BEEN TROLLED. YOU HAVE LOST. HAVE A NICE DAY’. It’s the Internet’s version of that ageless primary school taunt: SUCKED IN. If you predate the Internet, see Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football for explanatory reference.

When The Hand that Signed the Paper came out, I pretended to be someone I’m not: Helen Demidenko. In hindsight, trolling the literary establishment wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done. However, like many trolls, I also had a serious point to make: being imaginative is more important for a writer than being from the ‘right’ ethnic background or having the ‘right’ experience. The criticisms directed at me twenty years ago and, more recently, at Lionel Shriver, make two claims: ‘writers should be more representative of the population at large’ and ‘writers should not tell other people’s stories’.

Both claims are incoherent. They are incoherent because literature is not a democracy, it’s an aristocracy – in the old, Aristotelian sense of ‘rule by the best’ – and because novelists are in the business of telling other people’s stories.

It would be nice if making fiction more representative of the population at large by imposing quotas or picking winners from all-women or all-ethnic lists made it better, but it doesn’t. It would be nice if there were a 1-1 relationship between lived experience and literary talent, but there isn’t.

Writing is not Parliament or a Board of Directors. Improving its representativeness will not improve its quality qua literature. There is no guarantee a novel written about racism by a black author will be better than one by a white author, because ‘better’ in fiction is not a matter of who tells the story but how the story is told. And just because it’s hard to define excellence doesn’t mean we should give up trying.

For generations philosophers told us there was no such thing as objectivity, but they were wrong: they set the bar too high. No one can satisfy the philosophical definition of objectivity because to do so requires perfect knowledge. Nonetheless judges, counsel, and courts satisfy ‘the objective test’ at common law every day, because it is possible to be objective about the facts of the case at hand.

For the same reason, it is possible to define literary excellence while acknowledging that any such definition is necessarily contingent.


By contrast, making politics or corporate boards more representative does make them better (especially with respect to gender, for which there is substantial empirical evidence; there is little evidence that racial diversity improves either political or corporate governance). More women in parliament means more jaw-jaw and less war-war. More women on company boards make PLCs more profitable.

A fortiori, the Liberal Party and Rio Tinto (to take two recent examples) are within their rights as private organisations to change the representative structure of their party organisation and board of directors in order to gain benefits from increased gender diversity.

The attempt to make literature representative – by making the writing profession more representative – also forgets what fiction does. If you’re an author, your job is to put yourself in the shoes of people unlike you, people with different life experiences. Literature cannot be reduced to mere political representation: one of these things is not like the other.

Making literature more representative will not lower domestic violence rates, or increase Aboriginal life expectancy. Those are political problems, and they require policy solutions. Demanding (and funding, as the Australia Council does) literary representativeness is an extreme example of ‘pissing in a wetsuit’ policy: it feels good, but it doesn’t show.

Many people – particularly those on my side of the aisle – are fond of suggesting in response to all this politics that we abolish the Australia Council and let the market decide. However, just as literary excellence is not amenable to political logic, it also can’t be reduced to black ink on a bottom line. Free markets are wonderful, but they also mean bad writing can be popular (50 Shades of Grey) and good writing can languish. That’s why establishing an aristocracy of skill and accomplishment that is answerable to neither politics nor markets is valuable.

Complaints about ‘cultural appropriation’ evince more than a simple wish for equal opportunity publication, too. Such complaints are also about how people are depicted in fiction, and how some people would like to be depicted in fiction.

The desire to control how one is portrayed, how one is thought of, is deeply human. It was pervasive when societies were founded on status, not contract. A hint of the past is still visible in those countries with lèse-majesté laws, which work to protect the sovereign’s ‘inherent dignity and honour’.

Nearly all restrictions on speech – including the tort of defamation, section 18C, prohibitions on media reporting of Australia’s offshore detention centre regime, and controls on debating ASIO’s ‘special intelligence operations’ – are a black-letter form of the yearning to be thought well of, to be viewed positively.

No police force wants to be written up as the Keystone Cops, no ethnic minority wishes to have the activities of its worst members viewed as representative of the whole, no public figure wants his sexual peccadilloes foregrounded at the expense of everything else he’s ever done. Hence a willingness to reach for the lawyers.

Nonetheless, laws constraining how one speaks or writes about others are construed narrowly in liberal democracies, and for good reason: if we all get to protect our ‘inherent dignity and honour’, then speech becomes impossible.

Novels can do many things besides entertain, but they cannot make people better. Novelists can do many things beside tell stories, but they cannot make people equal. Those things are not what novels and writers are for.

Those things, to use the common lawyer’s phrase, are ‘a matter for parliament’.

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