In 1996, publisher Michael Duffy helped organise for a group of Aboriginal women to be bused from Adelaide to Canberra for the Parliament House launch of a book that he felt would put his new imprint, Duffy & Snellgrove, on the map. The women were from the Ngarrindjeri community and the book, by television reporter Chris Kenny, was called It Would Be Nice If There Was Some Women’s Business: The Story Behind the Hindmarsh Island Affair.
Kenny, then working for Channel Ten, believed that the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy—a saga that had pitched a group of Aboriginal women defending alleged sacred secrets against the developers of a marina who wanted to build a bridge to a small island near the mouth of the Murray River—was centred on a fabrication. He argued the secrets didn’t exist.
The provocative title for his book had come from a feminist anthropologist, sympathetic to the idea of a sacred secrets cause, who had ruminated to Aboriginal activists as they worked out strategies for trying to resist the bridge building: “It would be nice if there was some women’s business.”
The debate and legal actions over the bridge, along with the furore over government funding and guarantees, and environmental threats, had been the stuff of headlines, news stories and emotional opinion pieces for years before. The issue of the sacred Aboriginal sites was murky and polarising and even a 1995 Royal Commission which came down on the side of fabrication didn’t stop the question being asked again and again: who was really telling the truth?
Kenny built up his argument, citing some Ngarrindjeri who had come to be called the “dissident women” because they cast doubt that any secret women’s business existed. The decision to back those women turned Kenny’s life upside-down. His position was seen as racist and anti-Aboriginal. Influential journalists attacked him as a conservative. But Kenny, who went on to become chief of staff to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and later chief of staff for Malcolm Turnbull, but who had voted for Labor in the 1993 election, says he had no ideological barrow to push. He had read everything he could, interviewed everyone he could, analysed everything he could. He believed he was right.
Given the public back and forth, it’s no wonder that both publisher and author thought it would be a breakthrough to take a small group of the dissident women to the launch where they could speak for themselves. Kenny’s father drove the bus on its 1200-kilometre journey and Duffy sent personal invitations to the launch to the ninety or so members of the press gallery.
Just two or three members of the gallery showed up.
Duffy remembers being shattered. He was incredulous. This would have been the first opportunity for gallery members, some of whom had written on Hindmarsh themselves, to interview the women. Kenny’s book was one of the first six that Duffy & Snellgrove had published and so its reception was crucial. Duffy says now, “It was clear we were going to be shut out by the media.” Kenny remembers, “There was no interest. It was very difficult to get the book reviewed.”
A national book tour had been planned for Kenny, and a highly qualified publicist, Alan Davidson, engaged. It was soon clear though that there was simply no point. At the most, Kenny eventually did less than a handful of radio interviews, two in Adelaide. The tour was cancelled.
Almost ten years later, Duffy wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section that in spite of the book being the first account of what had happened over Hindmarsh Island—and this was a dispute that had mesmerised Australia for several years—“the media ignored it, and some bookstores even refused to stock the book on the grounds it was ideologically obnoxious”. Sales of the book, he said, were desperately poor, not even topping 1000 in the first year. It had a dramatic effect on Duffy, who had hoped that one of the things his new imprint would do was publish good, original work by conservative writers and challenge the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy of most publishing houses. The experience with Kenny persuaded him that wouldn’t work.
If Duffy and Kenny had been living in Vienna, they would have known exactly what they were up against: the Totschweigtaktik. The word means “death by silence” and it’s an astonishingly effective tactic for killing off not just creative work but also ideas or news reports or contrary opinions that don’t fit the prevailing and fashionable mores.
I discovered it only recently, in a piece by British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft about George Orwell, first published in a June 2002 issue of the Spectator. Wheatcroft had used it to describe how the tactic had worked on Orwell’s 1938 classic Homage to Catalonia. The left-leaning literati had disliked Homage to Catalonia for its revelations of Stalinist Moscow’s role in the Spanish Civil War and the way its actions had undermined the republicans. Wheatcroft wrote:
[The book] made Orwell an anathematised and hated figure for the Communists and their penumbral galère who treated him and his book either with poisonous abuse or with what used to be known in Vienna as the Totschweigtaktik, death by silence. By the time Orwell died in 1950 the book hadn’t even sold out its first edition of 1,500 copies, and it only gradually acquired its reputation as one of the 20th century’s central political and moral texts.
The word came as a revelation to me. I knew the process went on: I’d just never had such a chilling label for it.
In April this year, I wrote a short article for the Spectator’s Australian edition about how the Totschweigtaktik has been applied to several writers and other artists here: novelist, poet and essayist Kate Jennings; novelist Christopher Koch; pianist and composer Geoffrey Tozer; and poet James McAuley. That, though, is just a beginning on the list of names who have been affected and it’s worth examining some in more detail, to see what a corrupting force the Totschweigtaktik is, how it works, and how it can distort a country’s culture, legacy and insight into itself. It is only possible to give indications, of course: the genius of the totsch is that it’s difficult to prove a negative. It is hard to measure, and to quantify. It is not difficult though to observe it in action.
There is a famous maxim which is sometimes attributed to the American philosopher William James, and I’ve also seen a version attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. It describes how unwelcome ideas, and their proponents, are treated: “First they ignore you; then they mock you; then they attack you viciously. Finally they say, oh we knew that all along.”
Stage one—the Totschweigtaktik—means depriving someone and their work or opinion of the oxygen of attention. As I wrote in the Spectator, you don’t criticise or engage with what they say, write or produce; you just let their efforts expire soundlessly, like a butterfly in a bell jar. It is often helped along by a blur of Chinese whispers—some innocent, many malicious—which help explain to others why the writer’s or artist’s work is bad and deserves to be ignored.
Orwell, at the time he was being criticised by the communist Left for his observations in Spain—and even for having been a secret fascist—was also accused of being a snob and a hypocrite in his socialism because he was supposed to have said that the working classes smell. He had never said such a thing. In The Road to Wigan Pier he had observed that the middle classes of the early twentieth century had been brought up to believe the working classes smell. “And in my childhood we were brought up to believe that they were dirty.” Inherently dirty, for Orwell was making an astute and unadmitted point about the visceral reaction of the middle classes of the day to the working classes—that they were of “different clay”—and how that led to fears of engulfment and anxiety if working-class people appeared to be doing too well and on the rise. And of course, there was the coup de grâce: the constant harping by reviewers and critics that Orwell was only driven to his conclusions because he was muddle-headed and didn’t understand his subjects, when in fact he understood them all too well.
If Orwell struggled to find a publisher for Homage to Catalonia, he ran into the same problems with Animal Farm in 1944, taking it fruitlessly to major publishers before agreeing to let the smaller press, Secker & Warburg, publish it. The fable was such an obvious take on Soviet Russia, the big publishers were worried about offending Britain’s ally.
That’s enough to get anyone totsched. God forbid a clear eye will see through to the real folly, evil or trickeries that are being practised.
There are other reasons why someone incurs the totsch and they range from prejudice, bias and partisanship to self-interest to vindictiveness, jealousy and malice to the desire to stick with the herd out of fear or, again, self-interest and ambition. All are still alive today.
As for postmodernism, with its discrediting of the traditional disciplines, disdain for notions of accepted values, hierarchies and morals, and emphasis on “texts” and “discourses”, it has only united the herds of the literary and academic worlds. Now—via the tertiary courses for journalism—it shapes parts of the media too, and will shape more in the future.
What strikes me about so many of the totsched is that they don’t stick to the rules of the herd; they don’t belong to groups or subscribe to group-think. Like Kipling’s cat, they walk alone. It gives them clarity; it makes them vulnerable.
Kate Jennings, who recently brought out a collection of her writing from the last forty years, Trouble: Evolution of a Radical, Selected Writings 1970–2010 (Black Inc, $32.95) has been a cool-eyed observer of the scene since she moved from the family farm near Griffith to become a student at the University of Sydney and, in 1969, fell in with a band of Trotskyites.
She quickly stood out from the crowd when she nervously took the microphone at a 1970 anti-Vietnam War demonstration and, on behalf of her female peers, turned her rage on the men in the protest movement who, far from being as concerned with women’s rights as they were with those of the Viet Cong, oppressed peasants and their Afro-American brothers, had shown themselves to believe that women were there to be only two things—typists or bed partners.
But if feminists thought Jennings was now a signed up member of the sisterhood and everything it agreed upon, they were wrong. After successfully editing an anthology of poetry written by women, Mother, I’m Rooted (which sold an astonishing 10,000 copies when most books of poetry were selling well under 1000), Jennings changed her mind and declared, in an honest speech in which she sent up the sanctimony of both herself and the sisterhood, that such anthologies pushed women into sameness. “How many women cut off their heels to fit into the slipper we offered?” she asked, in an address at the 1992 Melbourne Writers’ Festival that was later published in Island in 1993. She also dared to wonder about the usefulness of postmodern feminist theory and the worth of Women’s Studies, and wrote about the “cockamamie but influential line of reasoning” that says that women are different from men and in ways that make them better than men.
Retribution was soon upon her. Not that she was too surprised. Here’s what she had already written in 1975 after she had felt the first intimations of the Totschweigtaktik that eventually pushed her to flee the country in 1979 and establish herself—successfully—in New York:
The [Australian] literary world is for the most part controlled by a small backslapping, backbiting group of men and a few male-identified women whose, as my dad would say, blood isn’t worth bottling …
In New York, Jennings discovered a multitude of publishers and outlets. She was liberated, an escapee from the fishpond. In the roiling tides of American literature, she not only didn’t go under, she caught the waves.
But not here. The same year her Island piece appeared, she brought out a collection of essays in Australia, Bad Manners. It was barely reviewed, which is odd, because six of them have been reprinted in Trouble and they easily stand up to scrutiny and time. They are acute, disciplined, original, wryly knowing and often very funny. In one of them, “High Horses”, she muses on self-righteousness and the women’s movement and discovers she is countering self-righteousness with self-righteousness. She writes of the much celebrated Sydney Push: “They hated moralisers, moralising all the while themselves. Their disputatiousness masked the fact that their allegiance was to each other—their drinking buddies—and not to independence of thought.” In another, she voices her worry that female-only anthologies simply push women into a different sandbox, “a smaller one, over to the side”. In another, she observes, “Thin ice abounds, especially for women with a dispassionate eye.”
This was good, sharp, prescient stuff. But at the time of first publication—silence.
Worse than silence, Jennings remembers, was the gossip around the literary traps. She was told that various literary Names were saying the book was an embarrassment which should never have been published and that Jennings could not write.
A little over three years later, the New York Times reviewed Jennings’s first novel, Snake—a savagely spare tale of a rural marriage—which had been published the previous year by HarperCollins in the USA.
The very positive review by Carol Shields concluded that it was “clearly the work of a powerful imagination. American readers will feel themselves fortunate to make the acquaintance of a writer like Kate Jennings.” A review in the Los Angeles Times Book Review read: “You can easily read the entire book in one sitting—and only upon standing be struck by how much pity and terror you’ve consumed.”
In 2002, Jennings’s second novel, Moral Hazard, which attacked the folly of Wall Street, portraying it via a merciless story that matched the financial world’s blurriness and amnesia with the Alzheimer’s of the protagonist’s husband, was published. It won the 2003 Christina Stead fiction prize.
So what do we think happened between the so-called writing embarrassments of 1993 and the American critical plaudits four years later, the Australian prize ten years later? Did a new spirit take over Jennings’s body? Or did she just dodge the totsch touch?
The answer is probably a little of the first but a great deal of the second. Jennings herself says she became a better writer once she hit America: “I realised I had to improve my game or else.” But there was something else that pushed her forward. “NYC is incredibly competitive, but people are also very encouraging, supportive. The same stuff goes on here in New York as in Australia, but because it’s so much bigger you have a better chance of finding like-minded people.”
The Totschweigtaktik works best in places where networks overlap and interlock, and where bullies aren’t challenged as often as they should be. The fewer media, artistic and literary outlets a society has, the more easily Totschweigtaktik can be administered. Australia, with its limited outlets and networks that snake easily across key power groups, is peculiarly vulnerable.
In an August 2003 address to the Bennelong Society, Chris Kenny talked of the way the majority of the media simply refused to engage with his book and his theory:
When it came to Hindmarsh Island, the ABC and the broadsheets were astonishingly partisan. Of course this is one of the claims they made against me. However, I simply point out that I investigated the issue thoroughly … The ABC on the other hand, as soon as the fabrication claims were revealed, went on the defensive, running the argument for the proponents of ‘Secret Women’s Business’, labelling the issue a clash of cultures, assiduously ignoring the dissident women and portraying my work as some kind of political conspiracy … Knowing all the details and being in contact with all the players, I had a fascinating insight into all this. I could watch people like [Sydney Morning Herald journalist] David Marr and [then ABC Media Watch host] Stuart Littlemore, for instance, pontificating on this issue knowing full well that they could have known very little about it. Because I knew who they had NOT spoken with … The dissident women we honour here tonight initially expected a media onslaught—but it never came to them. Very few journalists even tried to talk to them, to test their claims, to catch them out. If you really believed they were patsies, wouldn’t a searching interview do the trick? … As dynamic and important as the Hindmarsh saga was, did the ABC ever get Four Corners to tackle it? Did The 7.30 Report ever set an experienced national reporter on to the story? Did news ever mount a detailed investigation? No …
Totschweigtaktik allows a lazy, sloppy, in-and-out attitude to prevail as programmers, literary editors, critics and publishers use schoolyard popularity rules instead of critical rigour and appreciation to determine who gets heard. Then, it becomes self-fulfilling. The more a writer or figure is written about, invited to festivals, interviewed, referred to by others in the business, the more likely it is that that artist, writer or figure will be in the forefront of people’s minds. It ripples out from there.
Even now, if you type Kenny’s name and the book title into Google, only a few references come up. Conversely, if you type in “Margaret Simons” and “Hindmarsh”, up come many references to approving reviews, mentions and extracts in Australia’s mainstream media of her book on the affair, published in 2003. Simons, who now writes about the media for the website crikey.com, lectures on journalism at Swinburne University of Technology and wrote a book about the media, published in late 2007, The Content Makers (Penguin), took the opposite view to Kenny, a view that tied much more closely to the views held by many in the media. In early 2006, Simons told me she believed that Kenny’s book was partisan and that he had relied heavily on evidence before the Royal Commission that she alleged was wrong. She also made a point to me, trying to explain the press gallery’s lack of interest, that Kenny was regarded as a “prickly person” and was very unpopular. Hello?
The real issue is just what was going on here with the literary and media gatekeepers.
I still don’t know the truth about Hindmarsh myself. The 1995 Royal Commission agreed with Kenny; a later Federal Court decision delivered in 2001 seemed to indicate an opposing view. But what’s crucial about Duffy’s and Kenny’s memories was that it wasn’t that the contentious book was criticised publicly in book reviews, or dispatched for concrete reasons by those who disagreed with it; it was that the book was simply ignored into virtual non-existence. And remember, it was the first on Hindmarsh and whether you agree with the conclusions or not, it is a well-written, pacey book, packed with detail, research and reportage. It did receive two good reviews in the local newspaper, the Advertiser. Samela Harris wrote that the book was “as pure and incisive a piece of journalism as I have read in a very long time”.
Readers didn’t know the book existed though, because the large majority of people whose job it is to inform readers when something interesting is newly on the shelves decided not to tell them.
Kenny says he now takes some pride that the book received such little coverage. “At least I know they would have done anything they could to counter my argument or tear it apart but they couldn’t; I know one Aboriginal legal rights group had lawyers reading it line by line. So they ignored it instead.”
Maths professor James Franklin had a similar experience with his history of philosophy in Australia, Corrupting the Youth (Macleay Press) published in 2003. I came across it while doing research into postmodernism and Australian universities for my own book The Triumph of the Airheads—and the Retreat from Commonsense. I knew nothing about Franklin or his political and moral leanings but I did know something about the shenanigans that took place in the philosophy department of the University of Sydney through the 1960s and 1970s because I had known people involved.
When I read Franklin’s chapter on that saga, a ruckus between the Left and the Right which resulted in the small department having to split into two, I was riveted. That chapter is a dramatic but meticulously researched account of a brawl that had fascinated people, including the media, at the time and which has had a lasting impact on the university and on Australian philosophy.
Early in it, Franklin deals with the 1965 Knopfelmacher affair. Dr Frank Knopfelmacher, a Melbourne University lecturer in psychology who had fled both Hitler and then communist Czechoslovakia, had been selected for a senior lectureship in political philosophy in the University of Sydney’s philosophy department. But the Professorial Board refused to approve the appointment because, Franklin writes, of his outspoken comments. Knopfelmacher had written strongly about the power of the old Left and communist sympathisers in the academy: “Their wish is to eliminate altogether intelligent discussion of political issues from the campus. The outspoken command is—be a fellow-traveller, or a neutral, or keep quiet.” Franklin writes of the board, “They were appalled at the tone of voice.”
But by the early 1970s, the politics of the Left were threatening to swallow philosophy. Student sit-ins, marches, demonstrations against Vietnam and authority—but also moves to include the thoughts of Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao and Che Guevara in the philosophy department courses. Franklin noted, quoting academic Jean Curthoys, “The Sydney University Philosophy IV students of 1970 included a dope-smoking group and a heroin-shooting group.”
Franklin’s story-telling throughout the book works as an eye-opener for a larger audience (readers like me) while being a precise historical record that covers what Australian philosophers thought might be the big questions—and the rows, conflicts and grand passions that then ensued. As with the best writing, the Sydney chapter is the world seen in a grain of rice.
It didn’t surprise me to learn later that Franklin’s book had received a positive 2400-word review in the Times Literary Supplement by David Oderberg, a Melbourne University graduate who is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading in Britain:
James Franklin—himself a shining example of what is fine in the Australian intellectual tradition—has produced a splendid book. The coverage is huge, the research encyclopaedic and the footnotes are almost exhausting in their multitude … the lightness of touch and fluency of style are accompanied by many penetrating comments and insights … Australian philosophy should be grateful that he has turned his hand to such a monumental subject.
But when I later met Franklin, he told me the book—which had taken him seven years to write—had made little impact in Australia. Given my own background in features and extracts, I was mystified to discover that the Sydney Morning Herald, a natural home, had never run extracts or done a story. Nor did it review the book. The Australian failed to excerpt anything either, even less understandable given its Higher Education Supplement, but at least it reviewed the book.
When, some time after review copies had gone out, Franklin approached the Herald, a section editor responded—six weeks later—that the then literary editor, Malcolm Knox, had said it was now too late, and the print-run was too small.
Franklin had had problems getting the book published after knockbacks from the bigger Sydney publishers and initial enthusiasm from both Melbourne University Press and the University of New South Wales Press. Eventually, he went to Macleay Press, run by the editor of this magazine, Keith Windschuttle. Franklin tells me that his new publisher warned him of the difficulties he might face because of antipathy towards Windschuttle’s own political positions, and especially his writing about genocide and Aborigines.
Seven years later, Franklin’s book has sold just 2000 copies.
Franklin comments that in both academia and the literary worlds, it’s not so much about people being challenged to be interested, it’s really about who’s in and who’s out. “And we’re reading who’s in.”
The trouble with the Totschweigtaktik is that sufferers who object or complain can sound plaintive, like the kid who didn’t get invited to the birthday party, or much worse, like bad losers who are belly-aching because they didn’t get the gold star or the attention. As playwright Ray Mathew says to Kate Jennings of the writer’s condition, in Trouble, “Everybody’s overlooked! And every writer over seventeen knows that’s the truth.”
Sometimes though there are such blatant examples of the totsch that no one can deny what has gone on.
The late Fred Brenchley had an odd brush with Australian publishers in 2003, as fellow journalist Colleen Ryan reported in the Australian Financial Review that year. Much to his surprise, Brenchley couldn’t find a taker for his book about Allan Fels, the controversial former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission which had been forged from the Prices Surveillance Authority and the Trade Practices Commission.
During his twelve-year stint as a national competition regulator with these various bodies, Fels had taken on many groups, including publishers, as he policed mergers between big companies, consumer trade practices and anti-competitive behaviour. When a PSA inquiry found that book prices were significantly higher here than in either the UK or Canada, it was Fels who moved in on the publishing industry and the legislation that gave it a monopoly over when and which overseas books could be imported and at what price. That led to the thirty-day parallel importation rule.
Local publishers had been horrified by Fels’s campaign and the exposé of the high prices. All this became a problem for Brenchley’s authorised biography of Fels. As Colleen Ryan wrote in the Australian Financial Review on August 8, 2003, “[Fels] may be a household name, even a phenomenon … But that is not good enough for many of Australia’s major commercial publishers. Fels had been their enemy and his campaign against high book prices had angered the industry.”
Ryan quoted from Brenchley’s own description of the saga. After numerous knockbacks, “Penguin, a major global publisher, expressed great interest. After the usual discussion on content, Penguin’s publishing director, Robert Sessions, was ‘delighted’ to offer a contract to publish. But a month later, Sessions had to withdraw the offer.”
Ryan continued, “According to Brenchley, Sessions said he did not enjoy the support of his fellow directors, who felt they could not support a book about Fels. The directors felt that Fels had tried to scuttle their industry, whether unwittingly or by lies …”
Oh. (So no books on Hitler then?)
As far as readers were concerned, Fels was a national figure who had appeared on popular television shows. He had, it was remarked, “head waiter recognition status” and had been dubbed “the Robin Hood” of Australia. I interviewed Brenchley in 2005, four years before his death. He told me he’d been staggered by Penguin’s reversal. He said he and Sessions had negotiated; that he’d had an e-mail offer from him and that Brenchley had been happily working away at the book. “They’d already agreed it was a commercial proposition,” Brenchley told me, “so basically, they were cutting off their own noses.”
In the end, John Wiley & Sons, a local publisher which belonged to a major American network and which had the American-born Shawn Casey at its head at the time, scooped up the book. Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power sold a respectable 8000 copies in two years and won Brenchley the $30,000 inaugural Blake Dawson Waldron Prize for business literature in early 2005.
Few of the public understand any of this is going on. You have to be an insider or have friends in the business, and be acutely aware of what’s going on in the books pages, literary magazines, on the festival circuit, at the awards and with grants.
I got my first whiff of the practice long before I knew what it was called. I grew up in a writing household. My mother wrote the novel The Fringe Dwellers, about an Aboriginal family in an intolerant country town. It’s a book that has been well and truly totsched in the last twenty-five years.
In the mid-1990s, I was appointed founding editor of the Australian’s Review of Books, a monthly journal that was dreamed up by the then editor-in-chief of the Australian, Paul Kelly, who then persuaded the Australia Council to help fund it. The council’s substantial grant was made on the understanding that the new journal would run lengthy essays from Australian authors and poets and pay them a dollar a word, which would help finance them as they wrote their next work. I had to suddenly acquaint myself with a completely different group of people from the journalists I’d normally been commissioning in my role, running the features areas of the Australian.
It was a remarkable introduction to mass venality and amorality. People wanted in (even if many of them despised the publication because its host newspaper, the Australian, was owned by Rupert Murdoch).
As I’ve already written in the Spectator, appallingly sloppy writers were pressed on me, as potential writers, by their mates in the business. At the same time, I was being warned away from people, like award-winning poet and theologian Kevin Hart who—when I ignored the advice—turned out to be shockingly good.
I eventually sorted out who was who and who could actually write an essay—and who couldn’t. It was a revelation, especially as the clumsy and sterile verbiage of postmodernism lay thickly on the sentences of much that was being written at the time. I declared the ARB to be a postmodern-free zone and I hunted through the crowds for talent that stood out. I often had to hunt hard; not because the talent wasn’t there but because it was often kept so firmly out of view.
Many of the writers I commissioned eventually became my friends—Chris Koch, Kate Jennings—and so I naturally started to watch their progress. I also watched, in some surprise, the progress of people who I’d discovered weren’t much chop as essayists or thinkers or—indeed—as writers.
I realised soon enough that the more entrenched a writer or academic is in a network—and it applies to journalists too, just as it applies in many fields, from the arts to politics—the more likely it is that he or she will not be totsched. Instead, at crucial times, they will be lifted aloft, like a victorious general being hoisted onto comradely shoulders. We know this happens in the shadowy worlds of business and in politics where pinning person to outcome can be difficult; it was depressing for me to realise how much it permeates the artistic fields where it should be simpler to decide if someone has a gift or not.
Psychology, herd behaviour and instinct play their roles here: most animals are wary of the stranger or solitary spirit. However, in small societies there can also be fear or jealousy of the loner’s insights. Or as Patrick White once said, of Australia at large, and including journalists and schoolmasters in his critique: “It was the exaltation of the average that made me panic most.”
My eighteen months running the ARB left me with a taste of what life in literary circles must be like for so many and it’s not a taste that goes away easily. Now I watch the literary scene and delight in the breakthroughs and the few literary editors who edit for their readers, not for the matey approval of their pals in publishing, writing, academia and criticism.
In the absence of champions, the totsched usually just apply themselves to their work. Sometimes, given the wisdom of crowds and never mind the inner circles, that can be more than enough to see them through. One of the most totsched writers in Australia is Christopher Koch, a two-time Miles Franklin Award winner, whose books have been best-sellers here and internationally.
In the December 2009 issue of the literary journal Antipodes which is published twice a year in the United States, an American academic commented on Koch’s peculiar and neglected position in his homeland. Pointing to the critical respect and popular success awarded his third novel, The Year of Living Dangerously; its recognition overseas combined with the “substantive enthusiasm outside Australia” for Highways to a War; critical attention for his work; and Koch’s ability to live on his writer’s earnings because of his sales, Richard Carr, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, comments: “Yet when most are called on to name Australian writers of note, Koch’s name is unlikely to come easily to mind.” (French academic Xavier Pons has also written of Koch falling out of favour with the local literary establishment because of his “grumpy” railings at the misdeeds of postmodernism: “[this] does not excuse the current critical neglect of this elegant yet forceful writer”.)
In the mid-1990s, Koch and I had long talks about the state of letters here and the importance of story-telling in novels. He spoke often and admiringly about the skills of writers from Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene to William Faulkner and he was disparaging of novels where the plot-line meandered or hardly existed. I saw nothing wrong with his argument that a novel should draw the reader along. I was also present the night in June 1996 when he made a short speech, accepting his second Miles Franklin Award, for Highways to a War. To the surprised delight of most of the crowd gathered at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, Koch appealed to writers, especially young writers, to recognise the dangers of being bullied by “various sorts of literary commentators and teachers”.
He did not mean, he hastened to say, those critics and teachers who truly love literature. He meant the ones who were multiplying like mice, who called novels “texts”, and who saw writers as “blind instruments for social forces that are only fully understood by the white-coated scientists of the English departments. This is, of course, the final revenge of the uncreative.” He exclaimed, “They are abolishing the notion of beauty.”
To most of us in the room it sounded like what Americans call a mom-and-apple-pie statement: what’s not to like? The Australian and the Age reproduced the speech two days later. But a tiny group, led by Melbourne critic Peter Craven, stood down the back, hissing like rattlesnakes.
The speech—and the reaction of the Craven claque—has become notorious over the years, with people often pointing to it as the time when Koch and Australia’s literary establishment fell out. Koch laughs at that interpretation.
He believes his totsching started over a decade before, with the success of his fourth novel, The Doubleman, published in 1985, for which he won his first Miles Franklin. By then, he was already an international figure because of The Year of Living Dangerously which Peter Weir had turned into a successful film with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. For many months before and after the film’s premiere in the early 1980s, Koch’s phone never stopped ringing with journalists wanting interviews or quotes. There were wild stories about his royalties. Koch had worked as an ABC radio producer, and his brother Philip was a respected ABC foreign correspondent, and that made Koch even more popular with the press—but not with many of the literati. Introduced to one of Australia’s leading writers of the time, Koch says he was greeted with sourness. The author looked at him with loathing as they were introduced. “That’s a name it’s hard to escape at the moment,” the author said.
Koch’s sales and continuing popularity with readers mean his treatment edges beyond step one of James’s maxim—being ignored—and into the second and third stages: mockery and scalding attacks.
The Doubleman was published six years after The Year of Living Dangerously by Carmen Callil at Chatto & Windus in Britain and by McGraw-Hill in New York. To Koch’s surprise, Sydney University academic Don Anderson, in his column in the National Times, wrote it off as a “conservative” book, and also hinted at favouritism from one judge being behind Koch’s Miles Franklin win. (Ten years later, Craven was calling his second win, for Highways to a War, “an apparently safe and conservative choice”.)
In late 1985, an academic, Susan McKernan, wrote in Meanjin of the inclusion of an excerpt from The Doubleman (originally published as a short story in the Bulletin) in the new Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature, pointing out that writers like Helen Garner, David Ireland “or even Thomas Keneally” had not had work extracted. McKernan then went on to allege—falsely, Koch says—that Koch had been charged with promoting Australian racism in The Year of Living Dangerously—“most recently,” she wrote, “by [Singapore academic] Kirpal Singh at the 1985 ASAL [Association for the Study of Australian Literature] conference.” McKernan argued there is no ordinary Indonesian family in the novel, but there are “beggars, prostitutes and bantji boys”, and the Western journalists in the book go for the “filthy and colourful”.
“No other journal or review has made such a claim,” Koch says, and cites a review from the Jakarta-based newspaper Kompas: “Koch has demonstrated a great feeling of sympathy towards the Indonesian people.”
Singh responded with a handwritten letter to Koch in which he splutters with indignation and embarrassment, double-underlining words and putting others into capitals:
McKernan’s charge is absolutely out of context—I NEVER said your novel promoted Australian racism … I also said that I had nothing but respect for your work and that whatever reservations I had were meant to help improve inter-cultural contact … I NEVER, repeat NEVER, implied that you were racist etc …
The air letter is addressed Very Urgent with a PS on the reverse, “I’m most distressed”. Poignantly, there is one last little scratched question: “Is this woman a feminist?”
When Koch threatened to sue Meanjin, Don Anderson commented loftily in his column: “this, to some of us, may seem an inappropriate mode of literary discourse”.
Meanwhile, says Koch, Callil visited Australia and took her author out for a meal. He says she asked him if he was “beleaguered”. “I didn’t understand the question,” he says. “But then she told me that people had come up to her at the Adelaide Festival and had told her she shouldn’t publish me—because I was a conservative. It chilled me. They actually wanted to deprive me of my publisher and my living.”
Callil remembers the occasion but downplays its significance. “That wasn’t unusual,” she says. “Writers hate each other basically.”
Koch blames his treatment on his political views. Having been an anarchist in his youth, with ASIO marking him down in its files as a “left wing agitator”, he soon became opposed to the totalitarianism of communist regimes. That attitude became fervent when he married his first wife, a Lithuanian who had escaped the Soviets. He is now unabashedly a conservative and a traditionalist but stresses, vehemently, that he does not write political novels and his political views—as distinct from his moral values—are personal. They have nothing to do with his writing. “But you are not permitted to be a conservative in literary Australia even when you belong to no party and carry out no political activities as is my case. I’m not a political writer. I tell stories.”
(And what exactly does “conservative” mean in Australia these days when sticking up for grammar and correct spelling is enough to win you the title?)
Craven has been a particular problem for Koch. In a November 1999 review of Out of Ireland in the Bulletin, headlined “Bog-standard blarney”, he linked the novelist’s writing to that of Margaret Mitchell and Bryce Courtenay. The aim is surely to diminish Koch and thus shove him out of the spotlight and off the stage. It’s a common tactic. People still ask to review their foes’ work, all the better to deliver an obliterating send-off kick.
Koch is bemused by the attention Craven has paid him over the years and by his background. “He’s rather like a fashion writer, isn’t he?” he said to me. “He’s set himself up as a sort of grand authority on who’s in and who’s out.”
When Out of Ireland, the book Koch now regards as his most important, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction in 2000, Craven attacked the decision in a column in the Australian’s Higher Education Supplement. Poet Robert Gray, who had reviewed the book positively on its publication, retaliated in a letter to the editor: “To claim that Christopher Koch … is not a serious ‘literary’ writer as Peter Craven does in his column is extraordinary for a critic … Craven makes his claims without quoting—for him to have done so would have, I believe, revealed his tin ear.”
This can sound like the stuff of petty spats—and it’s instructive to hear how often the totsched are accused of being paranoid and over-sensitive—but this carping represents serious undermining, the kind of thing that, if carried on relentlessly, can affect how a novelist is remembered; how—and whether—their work continues to be taught and examined; and crucially, whether their version of what mattered in the world at that time is included in a country’s pantheon for future readers.
As Richard Carr writes of Koch’s work, “All of the novels participate in the longstanding literary exploration of Australian identity … Koch dramatises issues of urgent import to Australian readers even as he reaches out to audiences beyond the continent.”
There is a moral imperative to writing, to any creative endeavour. It is how we explore a society and ourselves; how we question; how we define. It tells us what takes our attention, what we find compelling. If the gatekeepers refuse to allow certain works and ideas to be aired, are they not getting in the way of that moral purpose? How many chunks of history might be different if, say, the Left had not stuck up so rigorously for Stalin and fretted about giving their opponents ammunition? Would Australian feminism be less on the nose with young women—with society in general—if more women had heard the witticisms, dry reflections and common sense of Kate Jennings and her like?
Some of the examples in this essay date from the 1980s; others are fresh. Together they show it is possible to draw a line from then to now and end up in the same place: with the conclusion that the Viennese Totschweigtaktik continues to thrive down-under like a choko vine.
If there are different types of people who get totsched, there seems to be just one type of totscher: someone who has already made up their mind and whose critical faculties are affected by that long before they see any work, story, opinion or analysis.
Life softens our edges but we hope it doesn’t take away the clarity of our views. In one newly written section-opener for Trouble, Jennings, who thirty-five years ago decried the back-biting of the Australian literary scene, writes of her new discomfort at having to do the fact-checking for this latest collection. She had tried to avoid revisiting her old troubles but she feels that her old literary mates “live as if in maximum-security prison, and spend their days making shivs from tooth-brushes and anything else that’s handy”. She writes that she has more shivs in her than nails in a Kongo fetish figure.
I’m told by a literary editor I trust that Jennings is now widely admired and probably far less “hated” than she feels she is. Nevertheless, the treatment of Jennings’s new collection tells us a lot about the patchy, lottery-ticket quality of critical reception here. The Sydney Morning Herald made Trouble its lead review and the reviewer, Sara Dowse, apologised to readers for her unrestrained enthusiasm. The Age, however, printed just a brief, if positive, review and neither the Australian nor the Australian Literary Review had even deemed the collection worth reviewing by the time this article went to press, almost three months after Trouble’s publication.
There was also an odd review by writer and former ground-breaking restaurateur Gay Bilson in the June edition of the Australian Book Review in which Bilson, while alternately praising the book and patronising Jennings, has a go at “authors who complain that they have been ignored when they haven’t”. She assures the reader that she knows “lots of people” who read Bad Manners and she distinctly remembers good reviews too. Does she? Where?
Jennings begs to differ. She can remember one or two and you don’t have to just believe her. Here’s an independent, Andrew Field, an American-born author and English professor who moved to Australia in 1967, writing in the Courier Mail in 1997: “In 1993, her second collection of essays, Bad Manners, appeared to almost total silence in Australia.”
In any case, I came back to Australia from London in late 1986 and it’s hard for me to remember a time when Gay Bilson’s name has not been mentioned somewhere prominent almost every month, if not week. For Bilson to rail at someone for feeling ignored is like Louis XIV being irritated by the homeless noticing it’s cold without a roof.
Never mind. Jennings is due to give various speeches in Australia through July and August and we will certainly be hearing her name. Koch is in the middle of his next novel and happily says that, however he is treated by the in-crowd, all but one of his seven novels remain in print, and the 200,000-plus worldwide sales of Highways to a War are now overtaking those of The Year of Living Dangerously. His last book, The Memory Room, has sold 23,000 copies so far. Highways has just been optioned for a film.
James Franklin can’t be batted down because, first, he continues to publish (his latest is What Science Knows and How It Knows It, Encounter Books, New York) and second, he makes an excellent living here as a maths professor with tenure.
I realised Kevin Hart must never have known about the warnings I received all those years ago so I contacted him for this essay. He replied from the USA, where he is Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and also the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies. His e-mail was insouciant, the smile easily discerned:
I imagine those people back then when you were a commissioning editor were partisans of those Sydney poets whose work I don’t care for (I find it very derivative, and all the more so now I live in the States …) … As for ‘death by silence’ I can’t say that I’m aware of it in my case. (I’ve won too many prizes and had too many distinctions for it to seem even vaguely plausible as a platform for complaint.) There has been some cruelty, to be sure … Other than that, it’s been no more than the usual envy with attendant malice. It’s no more than one might expect …
What really stinks in Australia, I think, is that so many works by the great writers are simply unavailable. I can’t introduce friends in the States to the Australian poetry I love—because almost all of it is available only on the antiquarian market. I don’t think that David Campbell is in print; only a small selection of Alec Hope is in print. Frank Webb is being brought back into print. I don’t think Slessor is in print.
Koch quotes Slessor: “Just keep writing; that’s what the bastards hate most.”
It strikes me looking back at this essay that I would find it hard to put the various “totsched” people I’ve mentioned at a table and expect harmony. They have strongly varying views; they would argue, fight, maybe detest each other. Not so the critics, editors, judges, festival organisers and the like who have consistently either disparaged or ignored their work. In that world, there is broad consensus.
Is that what we want? As Jennings writes, “nearly everything new and exciting, every advance, is produced by someone determinedly swimming against a tide, stubborn as hell …”
That applies to everyone from the two West Australian doctors who endured over a decade of ridicule and cold shoulders until they eventually proved that most stomach ulcers are caused by the bug Helicobacter pylori to writers like Orwell eventually enlightening the world about totalitarianism.
I once spoke to a neurosurgeon about conformity. He raised the spectre of Dutch elm disease which, starting in 1967, wiped out the beautiful elms that had once lined the byways of Britain. The elms had all been identical genetically; there had been little evolutionary variation. “There’s the danger,” he remarked. “No resistance.”
We should never forget that a society eventually is what it has had to become used to being. Here we have become too used to thoughts, opinions, news stories and writing being passed on to us only after they have been vetted and approved by a small inner circle of purse-lipped inspectors wearing fake monocles and too much attitude.
In her 2008 Quarterly Essay on the America of Obama and Wall Street, republished in Trouble, Jennings writes about how humans can become used to the outlandish, the scandalous, the upside down, the grotesque. “Keep company only with people who behave like conger eels,” she warns, “and after a while that seems normal.”
Shelley Gare is a journalist and editor, a former deputy editor of the Australian and former editor of Good Weekend magazine. Her book The Triumph of the Airheads—and the Retreat from Commonsense was published by Park Street Press in 2006.
Note: 3 August, 2010: Shelley Gare and Kate Jennings will be speaking at the Sydney Institute on “Trouble: the art of sticking your head above the parapet”. Details here…