Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Diary of an Honours Student: The Study Week Edition

First things first... did you see me on All That Glitters this week?  YOU DIDN'T?

We must remedy this at once.  Amber-Rose from All That Glitters asked me to write a special guest post on my favourite book as part of her Literature Festival.  It went up on Sunday, and you can read it right here.  (Thanks, Amber-Rose!)

Right.  Let's push on, shall we?

This week, I want to ask: What do you do when you find a piece of evidence, or get an answer from an expert that totally throws your ideas about your research out the window?

Do you:

a) Forget that you found the evidence, just like you would forget you found one of your sister's earrings in your collection after you'd sworn you hadn't taken it?

b) Take the piece of evidence totally out of context and make it put it's leg behind it's head like a contortionist so that it actually does support your thesis?

c) Sit down with all your information, look at it in a logical way and ask what does this piece of information tell me about my thesis NOW?

If you answered C, you'd be correct.  Congratulations, you are neither lazy, nor David Irving.

Last week, I emailed an author.  Let's call him Fred Jones.  In this email, I asked him what I thought was an incredibly intelligent question, which went a little something like this.

"I’ve uncovered in my research that in the early part of the 20th Century most people wrote manuscripts to send to London publishers, therefore they wrote them with a London readership in mind- and this ties to the notion of the Londoners enjoying thinking of us as wild colonials. The text was mediated by that publisher, and we effectively import our own culture. Now, a lot of writers send their work to Melbourne, or to Sydney. I’m wondering if you think the same sort of thing occurs? For example, does your editor or publisher ever give you critiques on your work and ask you to make it ‘more Western Australian’, i.e. play on that otherness? And if they do, what sorts of things do they want to see from us over there?  "
 I thought to myself as I smugly pressed 'Send', "Self, you're really onto something here. You're connecting an idea that you researched with something else that you've researched, and what you've come up with is real BIG PEOPLE stuff.  Well done."

But no sooner had I patted myself on the back, the reply came.

Not only did 'Fred Jones' totally reject my claim that early 20th Century writers were mediated by London Publishers (a claim I had gotten from a REAL BOOK no less), he told me that he'd never experienced any Western Australian-ization of his manuscripts.

But I didn't give up.  I thought, maybe my idea needs clarifying.  I sent back another email.

"I’m basing all of this on the theories of Richard Nile (and then some other people but I won’t bore you). In a lecture the other day he was saying “Authors make manuscripts, Publishers make books and readers make Literature.” Which is an interesting idea. Let me put it this way. Say I write a novel (sorry, manuscript) about Australia. It’s the 1900s, I live in Perth, and I send my manuscript to Angus and Robertson but they’re too busy to take it. So I send it to Joe Bloggs the Publisher in London. And Joe likes it, but he sends notes back to me “This will never sell unless there are more Koalas in it.” Do you see what I mean about the mediation? So I rewrite parts of the novel (manuscript) and include a Koala called Barry. And Joe publishes it, and people in London see it in the bookstore, with Barry on the cover and they say “Oh, smashing, another book about the wild colonials and their Koala Bears. Shall we have a spot of tea?” and they buy it.
Fast forward to now. I write a manuscript set in Western Australia. I send it to a publisher in Sydney, who likes it, but sends notes back to me saying “This will never sell unless there is more of an emphasis on the Swan River.” So I rewrite a scene and set it on the Swan River. When it comes out, people buy it, and reviewers start calling me “The Next Craig Silvey”
Does that make more sense? Did that happen to you in any form?"

The reply came back later that same day.  It basically amounted to a big fat, "Sorry to burst your bubble, but no."

I was disheartened.  What was the point of doing Honours, if not to discover that I am right about things anyway?  I didn't sign up to be wrong!  

But like you, I knew I had to choose option C.  I remembered being in First Year Literature, and the tutor telling another student that  finding an article that didn't fit with her thesis statement necessitated interaction with that article, even if it was just to state why this student didn't agree with that author.  (Yes, as a University Student, it IS okay to say that you don't agree with PUBLISHED ACADEMICS.  It's more complicated than you'd think though, you have to know why, and 'Just Coz' doesn't cut it.)  I also remembered studying the Irving-Lipstadt case, not once, twice but three times over the course of my regular undergrad degree.  The proper treatment of evidence is tattooed on my mind, indelibly.

And so, I sat down and I thought.

And then I went in search of a honey pot, because I had the rumbliest tummy.

My Thoughts and Reflections Log for that afternoon reads a little like this:

I emailed "Fred Jones" and asked him whether he felt there had been any external pressure to make his book more Western Australian from the editing team.  His reply has been that, no, there wasn’t and if there was, he would be inclined not to work with that editor.  This is totally different to what I have been reading from academics on the subject, and indeed totally different from the opinion of Richard Nile.  If I apply this then to the ideas of Paul Salzman and Ken Gelder- that from the 1970s onwards, Australians have been less restricted in their fiction due to ideas from the 20th century like feminism etc.- perhaps the conclusion we are heading towards is that ‘Australian Identity’ as we knew it is either a) so firmly established that there need be no conscious effort to write it, or b) is dead and irrelevant.  I think Nile actually raises this question in his book.  Gelder and Salzman also talk about the increasing need for the author to be as much a product as their book- so, publishers don’t just make contracts for individual books, they have contracts with particular authors.  An author like "Fred" has the option, as he put it of “sending the editor an autographed photo of his arse” if they want him to make changes in terms of marketability to his book because publishing a manuscript is nowhere near as hard as it was when Elizabeth Jolley talked about Australian publishing being an incestuous little circle.
 Thankfully, I don’t think that this new understanding alters my thesis overmuch.  And I do need to keep in mind that this may be just "Fred", not all authors.

Looking at this now, I say to myself "Well, Self, this looks a little tiny bit like a proper, adult literature review."  And I feel just the tiniest bit proud.

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