Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather

I was able to review Olivia Laing’s new book Funny Weather for RightNow.

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency is a collection of short reviews and essays that Laing has written over the past decade for various publications. Its title takes the name of the monthly column she wrote for the US-based art magazine Frieze between 2015 and 2018. As these pieces are infused with a nervousness about populist or authoritarian regimes, the collection has been marketed as a response to Trump and Brexit. Explicit political commentary is not, however, the driving force of the entire collection, with many of the pieces bridging diverse subjects, including the work of Hilary Mantel, the visual artists Chantal Joffe and Sarah Lucas, and the twin catastrophes of AIDS and gentrification in 1980s New York.

Thanks to RightNow for the opportunity. You can read the review here

Why ‘Old-Chook Lit’ matters

The critic Daniel Mendelsohn has argued that the first role of the critic is to self-criticise. A critic’s choice of words is very revealing about the extent to which they have appraised their own values in the course of reviewing a book.

Like many fellow readers, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Charlotte Wood’s new book The Weekend. In following the press surrounding its release, I was very disappointed to read a review in the Guardian by Susan Wyndham that stated:

Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit.

What exactly is old-chook lit? Is it a genre of novels about older women for older women? Because if it is, what exactly is the problem? Older women do exist and deserve to be written about. The implication in this phrase that novels featuring older women should just be read by women only perpetuates their social and literary marginalisation. This feeds into the broader problem of the dearth of literature that portrays older people, not just older women, as complex human beings in their own right, as Ceridwen Dovey has detailed in the New Yorker.

There have been flare-ups of the discussion about the invisibility of older women for as long as I can remember. Initially Wyndham’s review put me in mind of this debate. Women are constantly struggling to be seen and heard on their own terms, rather than on terms dictated by or in relation to men. So this seemingly knee-jerk characterisation of work dealing with women’s experiences as frivolous struck me as deeply problematic. It is also surprisingly out of tune with our current social context, in which the Stella and VIDA counts lay bare the gender disparity in publishing and reviewing, and the physical appearances of women writers, rather than their work, still become the subject of so-called reviews.

Further still, there is a heavy dose of irony in the use of this phrase, as Wood’s novel explores key issues around women and aging, such as financial security, the aging body, and the way older women are treated by their families and by society (see Sophia Barnes’ review in the Sydney Review of Books). Wyndham acknowledges this, writing ‘Ageism is another face of sexism: older women are shut out of work, love and financial security; men are still dominant, and now young people are patronising.’ Given this, it is even more odd that she thought it appropriate to use the phrase ‘old chook lit.’

Perhaps Wyndham was attempting, in a clunky way, to draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. Old chook-lit falls into popular fiction, Wood’s work into the literary category. However this is also problematic, particularly because literary value has a long-held association with male writing, a connection evident as soon as we ask ourselves who gets to decide what has literary value and which writers can enter the canon.

The ANU Academic Julieanne Lamond wrote a wonderful article in the Sydney Review of Books earlier this year that teases out these questions. She traces the rise of the novel as a form, and argues that it started to be regarded as serious, rather than just entertainment, when more men started writing novels. Our idea of the canon, she argues, is shaped significantly by modernism which ‘formed itself in opposition to a notion of feminised, rapacious, disastrous popular culture. Especially popular fiction.’

Emily Maguire has also written about encountering the literary canon when she commenced university education at the age of twenty four:

When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.

Also, most of the books in the canon were by men. Most of them white. Many of them dead before I was born. And hey, what do you know, it turns out most of the fine-for-a-certain-kind-of-person books – the kind I’d read – were by people who didn’t fit those categories.

So the canon tells us that literature equals greatness equals men, while popular fiction equals inferiority equals women. Lamond argues further that this ‘deeply held association between masculinity and literary value’ makes it ‘easier for a work by a man to cross the line between the popular and the literary than it is for a work by a woman.’

To bolster this claim, Lamond looks at two categories of popular fiction: romance and crime. She asserts that crime fiction, a commercially successful genre, is granted more literary validity because it is dominated by men, while romance is ‘has to keep in its corner. If it’s lucky, it gets released into a bigger corner: variously described but most recently by publishers as ‘commercial fiction’, which is also feminised, also sequestered from the literary.’

Which brings us back to ‘old-chook lit.’ Granted, in a bookshop you are more likely to find Charlotte Wood’s books in the literary fiction section rather than general fiction, but taking this distinction for granted, rather than engaging with the substance of Wood’s work, is a disservice to both the author and the reading public. Critique the representation of women in a novel if it is shallow or the characters are one dimensional in a way that it reveals the author’s sexism or internalised misogyny. But don’t sideline books just because they focus on women.

Between Authenticity and Distraction: Sebastian Smee on the inner life

When I was in year eleven, my English Literature class studied To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Initially the length of the sentences, some of which are half a page long, came as a shock. On the surface not much happens, also a strange reading experience for a group of pimply students who had come to understand plot as a series of external events inducing an effect on the protagonist. Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their eight children and some guests including the aspiring painter Lily Briscoe rent a cottage by the beach, where they all grapple with the elusive nature of meaning and the ephemerality of being. Written in stream of consciousness from multiple characters’ perspectives, the structure and flow of the novel challenged the prevailing view of history as objective; a current of external events whose footprint was material. Towering over the characters both literally and figuratively is the lighthouse, a beacon of security in rough weather, and a guiding light in a dark night of the soul. The characters set off to reach the lighthouse, and their physical journey outward to it parallels their individual journeys inward to a place of greater understanding.

I grew to love this book, and Woolf’s work more broadly. There was something soothing in the way she drew connections between her characters’ inner states and the world around them. She acknowledged that we process events and observations on a profound level, and that the passage of time is experienced subjectively. The fluidity, ambiguity and bracketed interruptions that mark her style represent the interplay between our inner and outer worlds, and reveal the ways in which the material is superseded by memory. An experience can be fleeting, but its effect is felt, and can take on a life of its own, in one’s inner eye for long afterwards – perhaps a lifetime.

It is this inner life that concerns art critic Sebastian Smee in the latest Quarterly Essay. While the inner life is a concept that remains difficult to define and pin down, Smee is certain (and I agree with him) that we are losing our ability to both cultivate it and appreciate it. Smee argues that this is largely due to our willingness to give ourselves over to social media and other forms of technology which promise us connectivity, new relationships and entertainment. He asks whether we are adapting ourselves to fit this software and, consequently, reducing the depth of human connection and understanding that we bring to our existence. His fear, and the whole point of the essay, is that “as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.”

I came across Woolf at a precipitous moment in history. It was 2006, a few years after Facebook was launched. Even then Facebook seemed to be more than a passing fad amongst teenagers; the “responsible adults,” namely parents and teachers, were also using it. Though the craze could partly be explained by its novelty, evidence was already there of the enduring clique it was to become. A few years later, one of my friends revealed he had missed a few weddings because the invitations were only sent out on Facebook. A colleague of my mother found out on Facebook that her grandfather in England had died because her cousin posted about it before anyone bothered to telephone the extended family in Australia. “Is nothing private anymore?” my mother wondered. But privacy is distinct from inner life. “Privacy,” writes Smee, “is linked to political freedom” and “refers to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others. Inner life is different. Next to it -and despite all we hear about privacy- privacy is a shallow concept.”

But what is the inner life? The idea of an inner self is an abstract concept. Both the experience of it and its definition are, like the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel, elusive. From the essay’s early pages, Smee grounds his exposition in art and literature, rather than science, arguing that our capacity for rich internality is infinitely more complex than corporations, armed with their algorithms, would have us believe. His description of the possible constituents of an inner life is profound and beautiful:

It has to do, I assume, with your age and personal history, with the ebb and flow of chemicals inside your brain, and with your body’s itches and aches. But also, I would say, with your apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil.

Instead of turning to psychology and theories of consciousness and personality, Smee turns to writers and artists such as Chekhov and Lucian Freud. Chekhov is invoked as a unifying reference throughout the essay. Smee refers to his short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” about a man with two lives: “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him… was hidden from other people” and “all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth…. All that was open.”

A key question invited by the premise of Smee’s essay is: if our capacity for nurturing and paying attention to our inner lives is eroding, when was its heyday? It is easy to romanticise the past and yearn for an imagined time when things were simpler. Smee acknowledges that the distinction between public and private selves is not a unique twenty-first century phenomenon. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde, whose complex position as both insider and outsider allowed him to write theatre that revealed his contemporaries’ public fashions and private fancies. I also think of Jane Austen, who cannily dissected her society’s performative selves, false friendships and mercenary hypocrisies. But surely in the historical moments in which Austen and Wilde were writing, there were times when they would have been genuinely alone. Death was never far away. Apart from social occasions, their connection to the outside world was through the postal service, which was limited by human or equine energy, the weather, and the quality of the roads. Austen lived her whole life without going abroad because of the war between England and France. So, presumably, alone at night with only the candlelight for company, people had to nurture their imaginations, and found it more difficult to be distracted from the contemplation of the human condition. Today, conversely, as we “stare at our screens all day” and “feel visibly bereft without our phones” it “gets harder… to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it.”

As Smee argues, the internet has allowed our deceptions and social performances to become entrenched on a new level. Cyber bullying and trolling demonstrate how easy it is to nurture the fictional selves that we create online without being forced to confront their lack of authenticity, or question our motivations and the integrity of our relationships. Children “are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online… concocted from who knows what combination of software design, peer pressure and fantasy” which “appear to take on greater and greater substance in the formation of their characters.” Are we able to tell what is real and what is not? Smee argues that, on some level, we understand that we are being duped, but that surrendering to the ulterior version of reality that technology offers is part of the attraction. He remains bewildered by, though empathetic towards, our apparent “eagerness… to make ourselves smaller” by conforming to tech companies’ goals of capturing and commodifying our time and attention, thus perpetuating the reductive algorithms that such corporations derive from our data footprint.

An explanation for our inability, or unwillingness, to break with the virtual world is the missing link in Smee’s essay. While lamenting our behaviour, he does not analyse how it is shaped by the social conditions arising from late capitalism. Ultimately, this impacts on the strength of his suggestions for reconnecting with our inner selves. At the end of the essay, he contends that nurturing an inner life is about acknowledging our own mortality and paying attention to the things around us. In a theoretical sense, this is obviously, manifestly, true. But in a practical sense, it is an oversimplification. Something is stopping us, so what it is? Smee himself acknowledges in an earlier part of the essay that our awareness of our mortality is not enough to make us turn inwards. Rather, as he observes, anxiety about death sends us outwards, to:

disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

Though it may be born out of panic, this state of affairs is also the logical endpoint of consumerism. The acquisition of material objects is a distraction from oblivion. I shop, therefore I am. Similarly, dispersing oneself through the panopticon of the internet is about the accumulation of likes and followers, and the pursuit of the viral. It bears a resemblance to shopping, but we pay with our performances and in return receive attention that we take to be an affirmation of human connection, although (at least to start with) we know that what we are experiencing is not necessarily authentic. Our devices offer us a simulacrum of human connection.

Simulacra is a concept of simulation popularised by the French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard posited that, as the simulacrum develops, its relationship to reality changes. In the words of theorist Robin DeRosa, “first, it reflects reality; next it hides it; then it hides that it is hiding it; and finally, it replaces it so that the original is impossible to decipher.” In the consumer age, as we exhaust material options, we pursue simulacra. Industry and science acquiesce to our demands for the next big thing, producing ever-more inflated versions of the previous big thing. A simple but ubiquitous example is the development of artificial flavours. Prior to the 1960s, artificial flavours were not expected to completely replace naturally occurring flavours but today, most products on supermarket shelves contain them. We are surrounded by simulacra, but often take it for granted that they are the real deal.

Our preference for simulacra also underlies our relationships with the internet and our devices. Social media and applications emerged from the same consumer ideology that governs most, if not all, other areas of our lives. They nurture our expectation of instant gratification. We’re not easily extricable from these devices because the logic that holds us captive to them – the logic of capitalism- is so ubiquitous, we have come to believe there is no alternative. The hyper-connectivity that we are promised is a kind of pseudo-connection, a hollowed out version of our most intimate need that has been sold back to us. In short, our addiction to our smart phones and social media represents the quintessential triumph of the capitalist model.

It then falls to Smee to suggest a way out of the mire. As important as art is to Smee, he avoids the easy claim that art and literature are panaceas. Instead, he suggests that “[finding] ways to pay attention again to our solitude” and “daring to hope that we may connect that solitude to the solitude of others,” constitute the balm we so desperately need. Nevertheless, I would argue that connection is a basic function of art. When an artist creates art, they are seeking to expunge themselves of something that disrupts their internal equilibrium, and to put out into the world an object that embodies this strive for clarity and meaning. When I engage with art that that really moves me or gets me thinking, I feel connected, in a small way or a larger way, to the artist and my fellow gallery visitors who are also caught up in the moment. Fundamentally, art is a way to find a moment of peace, the memory of which can sustain us after it has receded.

Woolf understood this predicament. In the third and final section of To The Lighthouse, as Mr Ramsay and two of his surviving children embark on their journey, Lily Briscoe seeks to finish the painting she started ten years before. As she tries to realise her vision, she focuses on a space on her canvas, which draws her “out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers- this other thing, this truth, this reality.” But in a moment, her vision, sequestered in a hidden part of herself, bursts through, providing an impulse for the completion of her painting:

She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done, it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.


Works cited

Beaudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981.

Robin De Rosa, “Preface” in Simulation in Media and Culture: believing the hype, 2011.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927.

New Territory

I have completed another review which has been published on Capital Letters. This time it is about the craft of biography. My subject is…Richard Fidler. I heard the talented Mr Fidler give the 2018 Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library, in which he spoke about his radio program Conversations, as well as his book on the Icelandic sagas co-authored with Kari Gislason. How do we distill a life a into the narrative arc of biography? Read on to find out…

New Territory

I am delighted to announce I am participating in the ACT Writers Centre’s critics development program, New Territory. Six pieces of criticism will be posted on the Writers Centre’s blog between now and the end of the year. You can read my first one here, which is about Liam Pieper’s approach to historical fiction.

Thank you to the wonderful people at the ACT Writers Centre for their support in this program, and for Sue Terry of Whispering Gums‘ fame who is the program’s mentor.

Weekly Reads- Sunday 16 September

This is a new segment on what I’ve read throughout the week. Some of it is new, some of it is older stuff I have found in my travels on the internet, but all of it is interesting.

There is a bit of a theme to this week’s list. I recently read Do Oysters Get Bored by Rozanna Lilley. While this book is ostensible about how Rozanna’s autistic son experiences the world, she also reflects on the abuse she suffered at the hands of men who frequented her parents’ social circle in the 1970s. Her parents were the writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley. Lilley also details the ways in which Hewett was partly responsible for facilitating the abuse, leading some to reconsider her literary reputation. I would urge everyone to read this compelling, illuminating and beautifully written book.

Drawing Lines: Can we separate the man from the art? By Lucia Osborne-Crowley on the Meanjin blog

Osborne-Crowley has written a searing piece on abuse of power by male artists. She points out that “[t]he idea of separating the man from the art is based on the perplexing logic that we should forgive these men for their transgressions because of their profound artistic merit.” But she also points out this issue is more than a “hypothetical complexity” because everyday women suffer the trauma of the same abuse that Weinstein et al mete out.

Lucia also mentions the book Traumata by Meera Atkinson which I’m angling to get a copy of.

Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books? By Nell Stevens on The Guardian

Nell Stevens discusses the prejudices of authors ranging from Naipaul to Dickens to Gaskell, the last of whom she has written a book about, and comes to the handy conclusion that the “life of the author is never truly irrelevant – but if we accept that, we must also accept the weirdness, discomfort and complexities that follow.”

I look forward to reading her newly released book Mrs Gaskell and Me.