The Quiet Revolution: Literary Life Online and a Favourite Book

While the print media is so terrified of the internet that it takes every opportunity, however illogical or irrelevant, for an attack on the evils of the internet, a quiet revolution, lead by the tapping of computer keyboard keys, is taking place as writers migrate to cyberspace. Day by day, word by word, writers around the globe are building literary communities and now we have them in Australia. Ironically, I have found them through Facebook, the internet’s currently most successful social network, and therefore the most vilified as Mephistophelean, by the daily press.

What surprises me is how effective the print media’s blackballing of the internet has been in keeping highly intelligent and educated people away from anything but email, ebay – my euphemism for all commercial transactions – and some googling of fact. They will tell you how busy they are, how their lives are too full already but if you push them hard enough, you will discover that they do not “get” how it all works. Partly, it is the intimidating technology with its incomprehensible jargon, and partly, it’s the age demographic. Most of the people in question are over 40 years old. They do not understand how they can use it easily, quickly and safely to pursue their interests, cultivate new ones and participate in this mind-boggling technology, undreamt of by the likes of Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and more recently, even the creators of Dr Who.

Now, thanks to this cyberphobia, we are also facing the possibility of having the internet censored because that is a much easier gesture towards controlling child abuse (especially through pornography) and other seriously undesirable impacts on the young, than doing this with tools that already exist and, alternately, devising new, more user-friendly ones.

Ironically again, my introduction to using cyberspace was courtesy of the daily press, when I was able to file overnight copy by modem, instead of reading material over the phone to copytakers at 6 am, after writing a review of a performance that I saw just hours before. Luckily, I had a lot of help and although I did not start sending copy on my own until the advent of everyday email, I have always understood the value of trying to use the digital/cyberspace technology as it evolved. I was painfully aware that mere children seemed right at home with computers and the internet. I waded into cyberspace, cussing and hissing, “Every moron can do this!” and thereby implying, “Why can’t I?” Little by little, menu by menu – and as I write this, I finally realise what a “pop-up” menu might be – I got somewhere. Here, in fact.

Never before has the written word had such a life. From carving text in stone and laboriously writing by hand, from primitive printing and the Chinese invention of moveable type, to Gutenberg and the advent of what we know as the printed book, to digital technology and automated presses, we have arrived at the currently and rapidly evolving, printless, paperless digital media. While hardcopy publishers scramble about trying to work out how they can transfer their business – and most hard copy publishing is, first and foremost, about business because, if you can’t sell, you can’t survive – many writers are posting and publishing online.

Those of us for whom writing and serious involvement in creative pursuits is an intrinsic part of our lives, have nothing to lose. Depending on the kind of writing you do, financial considerations can be a very low priority because it’s not something you do primarily for the money and it is true that many writers will write and creative people will create, whether they are paid or not. And, while some writers, especially those with a journalistic background are even managing to make money from cyber publishing, poets, for example, are yet to crack the secrets of making money anywhere, let alone cyberspace.

The arrival of the Group Online Magazine, known as “Groupmag,” last year, was a boon for anyone interested in Australian literary art today. Using the free technology offered by Facebook, this quarterly magazine is organised, edited and published by a diverse group of very active writers. It uses a public blog site as its home and offers the magazine as an introductory index page, with an editorial forward, that in turn links the reader to the contents, which lives on the sites of the individual contributors.

While many online publications just attempt to replicate hardcopy, with rigid formats and print-style word limits, Groupmag format is simple, ingenious and excitingly flexible, allowing for text and visual matter of all kinds. The practical constraints of the physical world do not apply. A poem, a video, a poem on video, an interview, a report, fiction, fact, photograph, visual art and everything in between can come together in one edition of Groupmag, which is now in its fifth issue. Groupmag is free and, while it can be read by anyone, membership of The Group is only through Facebook because it relies on the technology offered by that platform, not just as a way of putting the magazine together as an online entity but also for recruiting membership, generating readership and soliciting submissions.

In a country like Australia, with its physical vastness and tiny, widely-dispersed population, a literary publishing venture that can overcome the problems of distance and financially nonviable per capita markets, is something that has never been possible before. That in itself is exciting. It’s local, it’s new, and uncontaminated by the fiddling of fiscal fingers. Money might make the world go round but as a criterion or condition for creative endeavour, it is a carcinogen. The renegade nature of Groupmag, with its inclusiveness and freeform structure is very appealing. The current issue leads with Pioneers in the Digital Snow, an essay by Mark Mordue, based on a speech he made at the Sydney Writers Festival last May, where he was announced the winner of the 2010 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. Mordue argues that “great critics are among the pioneers of ‘content’ out there in the digital snow.” His article illustrates that the internet is an ideal medium for extended, serious writing.

Meeting other creative and literary people through a venture like Groupmag and enjoying exchanges with them, is a fantastic and inspiring luxury. A comment or a shared link can lead to new intellectual and creative adventures.

Just last week, one of my literary Facebook friends put up a link, to be shared, for The Australian Literature Review. I took a look at the linked material and on the About page, it said:

The Australian Literature Review is dedicated to revitalising Australian literature and promoting vibrant and original Australian literary writing. Literature is used here as an inclusive term which embraces fictional writing in general.”

This struck me as a very worthy aim, so I posted the link to my profile, with the intention of trawling through the site later, when I had more time. I paid little attention to the small, pale grey text accompanying the link:

Facebook Share or Tweet a link to this post before 2pm today for a chance to win a copy of After America by John Birmingham or Silk Chaser by Peter Klein.”

Then I win. Me, who never gambles or enters competitions in the hope of winning prizes. This calls for some jubilant status update posts. “Un – flamin’-real. I’ve just won a contest through Australian Literature Review and hope to receive John Birmingham’s After America as my prize.”

Literary FBFs are warmly congratulatory; we all agree a book is a good prize.

On a coin toss, I get the John Birmingham book, my first preference. One of the FBFs is keen to know about which book I wrote to win the prize. Puzzled by her comment, I soon discover that there were several competitions going and one had asked entrants to write 300-500 words on a favourite book. The FBF had found it too hard to choose which book to write about, after producing 500 words just trying to narrow down the choice.

As soon as you ponder this, you can see the problem. First, which book do you select from what would inevitably be a long list of favourites and secondly, what and how do you write about it in so few words? Even when you eliminate most of the books that are closest to your deepest, word-addled self – the ones that made you: the Grendel’s mothers and Dr Frankensteins of the writer that you have become – you still need to set up some parameters to enable a workable choice. Since it was the Australian Literature Review running the competition, and given the Review’s aim to revitalise Australian literature, it would be appropriate to narrow the field to an Australian book.

With my preference for first-person narratives – on my bookshelves they stand, spine to spine: Conrad, Defoe, Dickens…Gorky, Grass, Greene…Hemingway, Hesse, Huxley…Melville, Nabokov, Oakley…Proust on its own with the poetry – and multi-layered ironies, I can choose no other than My Brother Jack by George Johnston.

It’s a moving tale of a boy called David Meredith, born into a pre-WW1 Melbourne working class family, who squirms in the shadow of his tough, magnificent older brother. Enduring unprovoked beatings from a brutal, war-battered father, he manages to build himself a career as a writer and become a celebrated WW2 correspondent. Along the way, as he rises in the world, he sees his brother diminish into insignificance, in a sort of “good guys come last” vein. That’s the essence of the key points of the storyline, the surface.

A little below it is a thick layer of Australian history, from the descriptions of vernacular architecture, embracing the Edwardian and Between the Wars periods, to the recording of daily life in particular social and geographic settings of that era. My favourite part of the book deals with David’s time at The National Gallery School, housed in the Melbourne Museum. Nearly half a century later, in the Melbourne of my youth, much of that world still existed. Subsequently when it vanished, it was doubly heartening to know that it survived in Johnston’s book.

For me, the arts have always been the most engaging and significant record of history, from the paintings on the pyramid walls and Australian outback caves to the contemporary output of visual artists across the globe, and from the anonymous Peasant’s Song of prehistoric China to the disaffected pulsation of latter day western rap.

Scrape away a little more at My Brother Jack and you get a morality tale of human frailty, enough data for a text book on the psychology of families and a profound study of the nature of individual success as it came to be known in the 20th century.

But I like it for the plaintive irony under the swagger of the prose, whether in decrying the monotony of Melbourne’s flatness and attacking the city’s social fabric, or in the exploration of the narrator’s relationships with the different people, including love interests, in his life. While David Meredith tells us his story, I am not convinced that Johnston, the author, really knows what that is, which in itself fascinates me.

It is heartening to think that a book like this is a long term best seller and that it often makes it into “Australia’s favourite novel” lists. Another novel, whose prose I admire even more, that regularly appears in these lists is Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. My huge problem with it is that Stead set it in America, when the storyline is drawn from her childhood in Sydney and, valuing verisimilitude, I find the transposition deeply unconvincing. That, of course, brings us to all the vexing and fascinating questions about the nature of autobiographical novels, of which Australian literature has plenty.

And any venture that wants to promote vibrant and original Australian literary writing has my full support because literature is the best part of our rich, local artistic culture. That the venture is online, shows a serious interest in the future.

Blazenka Brysha