Dec 22, 2011

When being good just isn’t good enough


I responded here to Australian writer Dmetri Kakmi and in amongst his well intentioned but ultimately misplaced criticism of The Australian Women Writers Challenge there were a couple of points that were worth teasing out.

Cream floats

There is a belief that good writing will float to the top. That an author needs to concentrate on producing the best work they can.  If it’s not successful it just wasn’t good enough1 . That good work will eventually cut through all barriers, cultural and otherwise.  Hence the advice to “stop your kvetching and keep writing”.

While I think there is some truth to the above point, I think its only half the equation. The writing is the only part that the author has control over or perhaps the most control over.  You give birth to the work and from then on it’s up to the reader.

That passage from author to reader though, is one that has a number of obstacles; editor bias in selection and actual editing, marketing, reviewing etc.  Not to mention that what constitutes good work can largely be subjective.

Is the process by which work is determined and worthy of publication and promotion, a straightforward or rational one? How much of publishing is the right person receiving a quality manuscript at the right time?

All things being equal quality wins out, but things aren’t equal, not in getting published nor out here in the fractured city states of reader land.

Which brings me to …

The cream must be seen

And I will use Dmetri as an example, he’s an Australian writer2 who’s written a good book (according to the reviews), indeed within certain it literary circles he’s received some really good press.

Despite this, until he commented on the challenge I had no idea who he was, largely due to the fact that I don’t generally read memoirs nor do I read enough Australian literature reviews, magazines etc. He is a Montague and I, a Capulet it seems.

Nothing to do with the quality of his work which may be entertaining if not brilliant.

There are a multitude of barriers for authors to overcome, some systemic or structural, some the result of bias, deliberate and obvious or subconscious and obscure and all of which really pay no heed to how good the work is.

Which is why I think The Australian Women Writers Challenge is an excellent idea.  It’s attempting to address and help overcome some of the barriers faced by women’s writing. They still have to write good books.

The challenge is directing reader attention to women's writing and saying “here we are, judge our work on its merits”.  Most of the women whose work is being read are veterans of the game, to hand wave the challenge as privileged whining is really rather insulting when you think about it.

They have done and are doing the hard yards, maybe not as hard as those in Mogadishu but certainly harder than most of our privileged Anglo male authors.

It’s an attempt to level the playing field so that we the reader can judge the work’s quality for ourselves, rather than have a biased gatekeeper direct which work we should read. 

It’s a consciousness raising exercise, an exercise in broadening our reading horizons, a call to examine and challenge our own biases. It’s about a some positive action, not complaint.

Don’t you label me

All authors, I believe want to be judged and respected for their work(being paid handsomely probably figures in there somewhere as well).

No one wants a free ride or any suggestion that they might have won a prize or gained popularity because of a quota or because they have been pigeon-holed into a descriptor that’s currently the flavour of the month.

Hence some people object to being labelled gay writers, <insert nationality here> writers, and women writers.  And here is where women and minority writers who aren’t male and part of mainstream culture are caught. Supporting an event such as The Australian Women Writers Challenge can be seen as self serving, as complaining. Conversely not doing anything means that your are really relying on a specific set of circumstances to line up for you in order for people to read your work.

There are literally thousands of competent writers out there and if they are doing a better job of getting readers to notice, then it matters not if you are a literary genius.

I’m not a door to door salesman, ehem… person

Promoting a reading challenge is a far cry from flaunting your wares or shouting “looking at me I’m oppressed”.

Still not convinced that attempting, or promoting things that address inequality is a good idea?  Is it some noble notion that if you must suffer for your art you will do so(and so must others for that matter)?

Strikes me that those who do so are martyring themselves for their work and the down side of being a martyr is that you’re dead and no author enjoys posthumous praise. 

Which would you rather here from readers?

“He/She was largely unrecognised in his /her time did it tough and was a brilliant writer”


“I am so glad I got to read him/her while they were still around so I could tell them how their work affected me, changed my views on …”

In my opinion, you need to give your best work its best chance of success. Relying on good work to do well, just isn’t good enough. But what do I know I’m just a reader.Smile

1. Different authors may have different views on what constitutes success, critical acclaim doesn’t necessarily put food on the table.

2 Perhaps he and others would prefer just author


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