Thirty years ago, when I began to write, it was in the Romantic belief that I was diving into a magical pool of Imagination. My imagination. As an art student I had studied Surrealism and was keen on Andre Breton, who reportedly put a sign on his bedroom door when he was asleep: ‘Artist at work’. I guess I thought my unconscious was a sort of exclusive bathing ghat, uniquely mine, yet fed by some mysterious subterranean source. At the same time, I believed in great writers and artists, and wanted to be one. The trick, as I understood it, was to keep plunging into the darkness. Writing was a weird, scary, exalted enterprise. You had to keep faith. You had to keep diving. Then one day, if you were lucky, you’d surface with a pearl, a novel that everyone wanted to read. Embarrassing. It wasn’t as if this attitude went uncontested in the world around me. At art college I learnt how the Dadaists had ridiculed the cult of the artist. I saw pictures of Piero Manzoni’s cans of artists’ shit.
Studying literature at Melbourne Uni in the early 1980s did little to change my assumptions. The dominant theoretical approach among my lecturers was New Criticism, which emphasised the literariness of literature. The poem or story was studied as a semi-precious object. As Vincent Leitch puts it in his introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, New Criticism saw the literary work as ‘an autonomous, highly coherent, dramatic artefact . . . separate from and above the life of the author and reader as well as separate from its social context’. I learnt to appreciate works of fiction for their exquisite unity. Each was like a Bernini salt cellar. I so wanted to make one of those! Small wonder, then, that the formalism of New Criticism didn’t dent my existing beliefs. As far as I could see, Romantic creation and formalist reception were two sides of the one coin.
I stuck with these assumptions for years. They were there as I wrote my first two novels. I assumed I was expressing a ‘personal vision’, and that the merit of my writing lay in my skillfulness as a story-teller. Writing came from the maelstrom of the unconscious; reading was an awed exploration of the formal elements and harmony of the text. This is not to say that I was wholly ignorant of the revolution that had occurred in academia since my stint at uni. But my knowledge of poststructuralist theory was patchy and secondhand. I was hostile. I believed literature had been colonised – by sociology, by linguistics, by philosophy. Troublingly, scholars, reviewers and public intellectuals all seemed to be singing the new tune. Sometimes it had the ring of dogma, such as when Ingrid Wassenaar, reviewing my second novel in the Australian, complained that ‘rather than making a postmodernist point about the inherent unreliability of narration, Silent Parts comes across as a somewhat earnest defence of realism'. I thought, Silly cow.
Yet a part of me remained curious and intrigued. I wanted to get a grip on poststructuralism. I wanted to read the foundational texts, rather than rely on the parroting of figures like Wassenaar. So when I returned to uni in 2009 I began to work my way through the new luminaries - from Saussure through to Judith Butler. I can't say I've developed an intimate understanding of any particular theorist, but I accept that Saussure's notion of the arbitrary and relational value of linguistic terms has implications for fields other than linguistics, not least fiction. Two axioms pop up again and again. One, language and literary forms have a tenuous and undecidable relationship with reality. Two, texts have meaning and value only in relation to other texts. This is to say that stories are written in the context of other stories, indeed within a history and culture of story-telling. Whatever deeply personal upheavals might happen in the process of writing, the text that one produces is a mish-mash of borrowings from and allusions to previous texts and only comprehensible because people have learnt the arbitrary conventions of such texts. Surely I was aware of all this before returning to study. Yes, but peripherally. I remained caught up in the private drama of creation. Reading Saussure, however, suggested that my precious little consciousness, like my fiction, was wholly dependent on its social environment, that stories and people are formed by an involuntary process of bricolage. Value, meaning and identity are not essential, but contingent. The web of relations is the determining reality, not individual texts or people. How deflating. Where is the autonomous self? Where is the majesty of human creativity? Where is great writing? Not that I have ever believed in a clever little homunculus typing away in a secret corner of my psyche. But the implications of Saussure's structuralism hurt. They take a bit of getting used to.
The first axiom, that language and literary forms have a tenuous and undecidable relationship with reality, goes to the validity of realist writing. If the text is not a mirror of the world, then it refers only to itself and other texts. Texts that pretend otherwise are pulling a swifty. The writer is guilty of illusionism, of putting forward an imagined reality as definitive, and squeezing out alternatives. Bad stuff. Or it might be if readers were really so easily fooled. I doubt they are. Intelligent readers read stories as stories, not as copies of the world. On the other hand, I have never doubted that fiction does bear some relation to the world, if only in its normative consequences. I guess I've become a discourse theorist, like so many in the wake of Foucault. I see writing as representing a reality that is unstable, subjective and phenomenal. I have never bought the idea that realist writing, or any other type of writing, represents an ultimate truth. Rather, it represents an indeterminate reality subjectively grounded in convention or social consensus. As Leitch puts it: 'Discourse theorists affirm that literature expresses the inner life of authors, but life is understood to be a regulated social phenomenon that differs with the time, location and group of the author. In place of the solitary poet giving unique expression to truths universal to all mankind, we find in recent discourse theories an embattled "scriptor" creatively mixing and matching cultural codes derived from her situation, community, and tradition' . After my initial resistance, this now seems a commonsense position. A writer is a cultural worker, someone whose stories touch the secret wounds and contradictions of society.