University of Melbourne
‘The ability to see and the talent to speak’: The emergent writer and questions of voice and authority
To begin to write a paper on the question of ‘voice’, I would like to begin with the question of the voice in the paper. Should I adopt the objective, pronoun-less, masculine voice which effaces the apprentice academic sitting at her desk? Do I choose a voice grounded in literary theory, the voice that, as Jane Tompkins identified, pretends ‘that epistemology, or whatever you’re writing about, has nothing to do with your life, that it's more exalted, more important, because it (supposedly) transcends the merely personal’? (Tompkins 2001: 2130-2131) Here, rather than actually being personal, this voice attempts to gain authority by inserting a quote from someone of more note than the author herself.
Or, if I step away from this voice and, as Stephen Muecke identifies in the field of fictocriticism, collapse ‘the “detached” and all-knowing subject into the text, so that his (or your) performance as writer includes dealing with a problem all contemporary writers must face: how the hell did I get here?’ (Muecke 2002: 108) then what performing writer am ‘I’ and what ‘here’ have I got to? I have applied for Australia Council grants as an ‘emerging’, ‘developing’, ‘developed’ and ‘established’ writer, and felt the material repercussions of being accepted, and rejected, as such. If, indeed, the I who now addresses you has any kind of stable identity – in a post-post-modern world where everything I speak is but a ‘tissue of quotations’ (Barthes 2001: 1468) – then my position as ‘professional writer’ stems, in the university classroom, not from any absolute truth, no sense that I have ‘arrived’ anywhere, but from achievement only by comparison: I have published, my students (mostly) have not. The voice I then adopt, in both this paper and the classroom is one of Authority, with a capital ‘A’ because I am the Author, a designation which applies when the writer’s words are published. I have two physical books to prove my status and I speak, apparently, with the voice of experience and knowledge.
Yet, there is another voice which wishes to insert itself: that of the practicing creative writer, the non-academic, who worries at the ideas to be explored in this paper in a different way. To allow her space, I have inserted quotations from my third novel, a work-in-progress entitled ‘The Master Class’, to sit inside/astride the text. This is an attempt to create what Ross Watkins and Nigel Krauth describe in ‘Radicalising the scholarly paper: New forms for the traditional journal article’ as a ‘literal mosaic or constellation of ideas forming in front of us’ (Watkins & Krauth 2016). In their example, Watkins and Krauth weave their email correspondence regarding the article’s creation into the article itself, generating layers of conversation around their argument. They propose many future options for the academic paper, to shape ‘a new concept of intellectual production and connectivity’, contending that creative writing is‘in the box seat for exploring and exploiting new, flexible and dynamic knowledge forms’ (Watkins & Krauth 2016).
By weaving a creative narrative – which is, itself, concerned with questions of representation and owning of story – into the academic theorising of voice, I hope to enter into this challenging of what form an academic article can take. This ‘sandwich effect’, as Hazel Smith has identified as one of the many creative-critical hybrid forms, ‘facilitates the ability to enter a topic, or set of topics, from a multiplicity of angles’ (Smith 2014: 337), though I do not pretend these creative sections were written in conjunction with the article. Rather, at the same time as teaching writing, I have been working on a novel project which has become ‘infected’ with these questions of pedagogy. In having these texts speak to one another, a dialogue between the ‘writer who teaches’ and the ‘teacher who writes’ (Cowan 2012) is enacted, these extracts serving as a different form of engagement with ideas about voice, authority and narrative responsibility.
When I discuss the notion of voice in the creative writing classroom, I am speaking of something quite different than this debate around what form an academic paper should take, yet the voice in which I speak of ‘voice’ echoes through this conversation: what self am I presenting to the student? How do I claim Authority as a teacher and scholar? And, at the core of this paper, who am I to tell a student what voice they can or cannot speak in?
The creative writing workshop model under which I teach at the University of Melbourne remains strongly within what Paul Dawson identifies as the ‘sublime’, where the student is praised for ‘the well-wrought line, the striking metaphor, the finely constructed scene, the authentic “voice”’ (Dawson 2007: 84). The sublime model, for the most part, arises from examinations of realistic writing, where the narrator is a created character, separate from the writer, though containing traces. It often relies on what Michelene Wandor has criticised as the fundamental conviction ‘that the core source of fiction is always the self, the personal experience’ (Wandor 2004: 118). The stated struggle for many student writers is to erase these traces: to, effectively, fictionalise the self and embody a voice which speaks its own unique style, a goal which is closely tied to the idea of individual genius. As Stephanie Vanderslice puts it:
While the notion of the drug-addicted ‘genius’ seems to have waned, the idea of connection with self as one of the primary sources of creativity remains strong in curriculum design. Learning outcomes are often articulated in terms that highlight the use of past and present experience. The University of Melbourne, for example, expects that students will have
Similarly, a creative writing unit at Deakin University
Dawson compares the ‘sublime’ model to that of the ‘avant-garde aesthetic’ which ‘encourages and rewards formal experimentation, subversion and renovation of genre, dialogic engagement with non-literary discourses, intellectual curiosity, political awareness and social responsibility’ (Dawson 2007: 84). Andrew Cowan, in ‘A live event, a life event: The workshop that works’, analyses various models, but claims ‘it is a matter of emphasis’ as to whether the workshop ‘will fall on the deployment of a work’s formal resources rather than any concerted scrutiny of what the work may reveal about politics or society’ (Cowan 2012).
In my experience of workshopping over the last five years – primarily in undergraduate courses – the ongoing emphasis has been on writing as a search for textual cohesion, via examination of craft elements such as point-of-view, narrative voice and framing, with little room left for the examination of broader social issues or questions of representation. The shift I encountered, when I began to teach a postgraduate course called ‘Theory for Writing’ (renamed ‘Thinking Writing: Theory and Creativity’ this year), established at the University of Melbourne by Elizabeth MacFarlane in 2008 was, therefore, somewhat profound. Drawing attention to the dislocation between language and meaning, via the ideas of post-structuralism and post-modernism, tested many students whose exposure to literary theory had been minimal up until that point. In particular, the challenge posed by postmodernity’s denial of fixed notions of self and identity seemed to be in direct contradiction to the tenets of craft-based realistic writing processes, such as ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’:
In the two years of teaching the course, I have encountered students who find this notion threatening – particularly when writing has been intricately tied to their idea of self – and others who find it exciting. Theory either produces a longing to simply write down one’s ‘reality’ – and, given realism is still the dominant force in the publishing industry, this remains a valid response – or it is seen as an opening to a greater awareness of the ways in which reality is constructed via language; the ways in which we can play with story-telling with self-consciousness and the meta-text; the opportunities to write back to the notion of individual style and to escape the pressure of excavating self.
The place of critical theory in the creative writing workshop has been explored often (Sved 2005; Fraser 2008; Harris 2009; Ramey 2014; Quilford 2016) but it seems ever more apposite to consider it at a time when, as Enza Gandolfo asserts, we ‘need to talk about identity politics and cultural appropriation and what it means to be a writer in Australia today’ (Gandolfo 2016). While Jameson may have denied the ‘bourgeois individual subject’ a unique personal identity, the post-human body has been reinscribed with its markers: who we are in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, able-ism and, in the Anthropocene Age, even as a species, has become an issue in literary representation, raising questions not only about our ability to voice story and narrative, but our right to.
In September 2016, I took the debate raised by Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival about ‘fiction and identity politics’ into a classroom of third-year university creative writing students. As some of them were unaware of the incident, I provided them with Power-point slides, the first with a quote from Shriver:
I then gave them this quote, including the title of the article:
In the classroom, the divide between opinions was startlingly clear: on the one hand, those who advocated for writing whatever you wanted – art as imagination, without political intent and as the storehouse of empathy – and, on the other, those who recognised the power and privilege of their subject position and their belief in the validity of the question: ‘Who has the right to write what story?’ The fixed views of those on both sides led to what I later considered to be an un-productive debate, as students declared either their access to oppression – ‘as a woman, I feel…’ – or their indifference to such limitations: ‘the whole point of fiction writing is to step into other people’s shoes’.
The general responses to Shriver’s speech and subsequent article in the New York Times – ‘Will the Left Survive the Millennials?’ (Shriver 2016a) – seem to reflect this basic divide and I do not plan to wade through the mountain of opinion pieces it provoked. What interests me, again, is what effect this calling into question of the role of self and identity has on the student writer and notions of voice and point of view. On the one hand, the post-post-modern denial of unique and authentic voice maintains that the multi-fractured subject has no access to a stable self, we exist in ‘a realm of floating signifiers, random connections, improvisations, approximation, accidents, and “slippage”’ (Barry 2009: 124). On the other, identity is intrinsically linked to historical layers of oppression and the lived experience of the writer, their access to “truth” granted via unmediated personal knowledge of culture, race, sexuality and/or disability. Here, the apprentice may be encouraged towards exploring their Other-ed self – for example, a student reported to me how an instructor told her to write her characters ‘more Asian’ – or be steered away from attempting to represent anything but their known subject-hood. The more nuanced response to these two seemingly divergent stances may be to initiate a discussion around being responsible, in the dictionary definition of the word as ‘able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations’ (Merriam-Webster 2018).
Jeanine Leane argues in ‘Writing Other People’s Stories’ that:
The technique of immersion is one which has been long adopted by writers of nonfiction and the use of this terminology in regards to fiction is telling. Henceforth, the argument goes, the fiction writer needs to saturate themselves in the experiences of the Other before they can write with any authenticity or authority. Yet how much immersion is enough to grant the writer a ‘pass’ into imaginative realisation? (And the use of the word ‘pass’ is not chosen without knowledge of what this term holds within it.) In contrast to Leane, Wandor proposes that:
This issue of lived versus imagined experience is a pertinent one for student writers.
I wrote my first novel in an arrogant surge of self-belief (‘I am a great and unique writer who must voice my adolescent experience’) and my second novel, The Heaven I Swallowed (Hennessy 2013), with a more circumspect view, but still confident of my ability to navigate the fraught territory of creating an indigenous character without primary access to indigeneity. In attempting the latter I did not, as Leane urges, immerse myself in Aboriginal culture, but rather drew on postcolonial theories to recognise the problematics of previous textual representations of indigeneity and, in effect, talk back to these in my fiction. Writing the novel within the academy I was able to closely consider, in the PhD exegesis, issues of responsibility. While I began the story within the realms of realism, I concluded that a ‘more symbolic or allegorical narrative where anxiety is inherent and the problematics of indigenous and non-indigenous relations continue indefinitely’ (Hennessy 2009: 67-68) was necessary. My non-indigenous narrator, a woman called Grace, became a ‘social-historical symbol of white Australia in the second half of the twentieth century’ (Leane 2015: 137) and I worked hard to give the indigenous character, a young girl called Mary, both presence and agency, a fact recognised by at least one reviewer (interestingly, Jeanine Leane herself):
Here my work did not emerge from cultural immersion, but from textual immersion, and an imagined dialogical relationship between historical stereotypes, ripe for undermining.
The question I find myself asking is: would I attempt the same today? That is, have the parameters drawn around the boundaries of fiction by these questions of representation and voice become so much more complicated in the past decade (my novel and thesis were completed in 2009) that I no longer feel confident doing anything but excavating the self? And what to do if this self is positioned at the centre of the mainstream? I am not seeking to glorify a past when writers were free to appropriate anyone else’s experience for the sake of their art. Nor to bemoan an inability to occupy and know what it is to be disadvantaged and the injustice of not being allowed to imagine that disadvantage. This was, ultimately, the trap Shriver fell into. What intrigues me are the intersections between: (1) the practicalities of being a responsible writer who creates fiction which does not, to any degree, engage in a form of appropriation, (2) the concurrent search for voice without the comfort of a stable, knowable I and (3) the downgrading of the development of personal style as a viable aim for literary writing. Yet when I say ‘intrigues’ I wonder if this is the right word, for the more I try to work at these intersections the more the way forward becomes murky and I wish, like many of my students, to retreat to my known identity. In fact, I wonder if my third novel is the fictionalisation of a creative writing Master Class because this is relatively safe material, a simulacrum of this Author’s known, lived experience? Ironically, perhaps then, my novel ‘The Master Class’ is primarily concerned with the question of appropriation. The ideas explored in the novel are about power and an examination of all writing as an act of thievery.
Freud asserts, in ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ (1908) that ‘every child at play becomes like a creative writer, in that he recreates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him’ (Freud 1995: 3-4). When Freud flips the analogy he makes the writer a child:
and suggests that
This vision of the writer as a child-like, omnipotent controller of worlds produces a distancing effect, enabling student writers to spend many hours using ‘their fantasies in the production of socially valued objects’ (Hecq 2008). Perhaps, by sheer virtue of their position – their place in the academy which affords them time and space to explore their creativity – they will develop a voice, a style, which stems not only from their unique self but from their ongoing aesthetic decisions.
Kevin Brophy, in tracking the ideas of ‘style’ from Aristotle’s Poetics through to contemporary writings by Annie Dillard and James Wood, comes to the conclusion:
If we hold onto this belief that a way of writing will develop – by the sheer virtue of continuing to write – then we can reassure the student writer they can move forward, via drafting and feedback. The act of writing itself will produce the act of writing. Indeed, it is often the case that the emergent writer is seeking to get beyond the voices of doubt, to give themselves permission to write the rubbishy first draft, to stop comparing themselves to the ‘greats’ of literature and value their own production.
Yet Brophy’s use of the terms ‘personality’, ‘set of values’ and ‘choices’ also highlights the ways in which the production of creative work is inevitably linked to a greater sense of the world, to an awareness of how aesthetic judgements do not exist in a void. Bringing the question of authority into the classroom intersects with notions of diversity and social inclusivity, ‘tracing ways in which “commonsense” knowledge and assumptions make it difficult to see oppression clearly’ (Bell 2007: 1). By underscoring the value of ‘discerning patterns, often invisible in daily life, that reflect systemic aspects of oppression’ (Bell 2007: 1) we open up, not only the important question of who should write what story but also ask the question: who is the author in the first place? Where does their author-ity come from? Here, the student writer is challenged to consider their position within cultural, economic and gender systems or as Patrick Bizzaro puts it: ‘teachers must spend less time telling our students what they should do when they write and more time showing them who they can be’ (Bizzaro 1994: 234). This focus on position should not be equated with the post-human application of identity layers placed upon the middle-class, white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual subject. That is, I believe there is actually little point in encouraging students to become caught up in what has been derogatorily called, by Shriver and others, ‘identity politics’. Such a trajectory can reinforce the notion that only known subject positions can be explored, which not only traps the mainstream writer, but also those who may not want to embody their marginalised position in their writing. Rather, a greater conception of the ways in which fiction inevitably connects with the political – whether intended or not – needs to be discussed early on in a writer’s career, rather than later. Here I am using the definition of politics provided by Jacques Rancière, in Politics of Aesthetics:
Instead of speaking in the language of privilege or guilt-ridden questions of access – where markers of class, race, gender, sexuality and able-ism are contested, in some bizarre trumping of lived experience – students can be encouraged to understand fiction not as a playground for their gated imaginations, but as a vital engagement with the world. In their introduction to Fictionalizing the World, Louisa Söllner and Anita Vrzina write:
Or, more succinctly, Rancière writes: ‘To pretend is not to put forth illusions but to elaborate intelligible structures’ (2013: 32). The challenge remains as to how this awareness can be practically applied in the classroom around the questions of voice and point of view.
While many writers will concede their debt to reality in the creation of character or story, the idea of fiction writing as an act of political intent only seems to arise if there is some large, obvious transgression from one position of power to another, for example, in the case of writing an indigenous character as a non-indigenous writer. Yet the decision to write from a female point of view, as a male writer, or the creation of a character with Asperger’s Syndrome from an abled writer, falls within the same arena of challenge, where the responsibility of the author is to the boundaries of the Othered. And, indeed, the decision to stay within the confines of the ‘normative system of thought’ (Söllner and Vrzina 2015: 8) is as political as to stray outside of it. Thus it does not become about setting up fences around the knowable or un-knowable subject but, instead, requires drawing attention to the political act of creating voice and the ways in which developing a distinct personal style may require racial, cultural, sexual or gendered immersion to enable a writer to ‘get it right’. If a writer is someone who pays attention to the world, then the teacher can re-position fiction writing as political engagement, where there is a need to recognise and discuss the consequences of a representation that is not aware of the structures in which it is created.
My authority, then, as a teacher stems not from my prior accomplishments – my voice is not to be heard because I am an Author – but from my responsibility to raise questions as to how much the student writer needs to interact with their own author-ity to create a plausible voice; how they might traverse the boundaries of their knowledge respectfully; and to what extent their fictionalisation of the world reinforces or challenges dominant modes of representation.
Dr Rachel Hennessy’s second novel The Heaven I Swallowed (Wakefield Press, 2013) was completed as part of her PhD at the University of Adelaide. It was Runner up in The Australian/Vogel Award and long-listed for the Nita B Kibble Award. She teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins