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Making it: III
What to do when the mob comes for you
This forms part of an occasional series on succeeding as a writer. The first piece is here; the second piece is here. If you have a question, it may have been answered in one of the earlier instalments. If it hasn’t, please pop it in the comments.
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I thought the nice woman who told me she was from the Miles Franklin Trust was a prank caller. This would, after all, make sense. I was an incurable practical joker, and my history includes multiple sendups, some of them, in retrospect, quite mean. Among other things, I shoved a potato up an unpopular teacher’s exhaust pipe, ran a set of women’s unmentionables up the school flagpole, and sat multiple university examinations while stoned out of my gourd. It would serve me right if someone had returned the favour.
This is because I’d perpetrated arguably the most impressive hoax in Australian history (I concede this was not immediately obvious in May 1995). Why only arguably? Well, Australia is famous for its literary hoaxers, and topping the very best of them is hard.
When The Hand that Signed the Paper first came out, I pretended to be someone I’m not: Helen Demidenko, from a Ukrainian family with links to the Nazis. In hindsight, trolling the literary establishment wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done.
However, like many trolls, I had a serious point to make: being imaginative is more important for a writer than being from the “right” ethnic background or having the “right” experience. I read liberal arts during political correctness’s 1990s high water mark, and when I was told (during a tutorial) that Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country wasn’t a “legitimate book” because its author was white, I decided then and there to run the intellectual equivalent of a set of women’s knickers up the university flagpole.
The criticisms directed at me 27 years ago—after the book won the Miles Franklin Award—made two claims: “writers should be more representative of the population at large” and “writers should not tell other people’s stories”. I thought both claims incoherent. Incoherent because literature is not a democracy, it’s an aristocracy—in the old, Aristotelian sense of “rule by the best”—and because novelists are in the business of telling other people’s stories.
It would be nice if making fiction more representative of the population at large—by imposing quotas or picking winners from all-women or all-ethnic lists—made it better, but it doesn’t. It would be nice if there were a one-to-one relationship between lived experience and literary talent, but there isn’t.
Improving literary representativeness will not improve literature’s quality qua literature. There is no guarantee that a novel written about racism by a black author will be better than one by a white author, because “better” in fiction is not a matter of who tells the story but how the story is told.
The Hand that Signed the Paper is also set in Ukraine against a background of that country’s tragic and bloody history, particularly the 1932-3 Ukrainian Famine (Ukr: Holodomor, meaning “hunger-murder”). At this point, I should probably reassure you that I really did write it in the early 1990s and it was indeed first published in 1994. This means, unlike many people, I had “Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine” on my 2022 bingo card, but that was only because I’ve had “Russia invades Ukraine at some point” on my bingo card since about 1991.
The book caused a great deal of controversy. Many academics objected to my unflattering portrait of Communism. Most writers are also left-wing, and I’m not, so I copped dislike for that reason alone. Some people were proud they hadn’t read it, an early warning of something now commonplace: the refusal to read anything written by “the opposition.” That aside, a great deal of the controversy concerned how I constructed my characters, and who and what I portrayed with sympathy. This mainly came from Jews—or, rather, Jewish lobbying outfits who purport to speak for their ethnic minority. That difference, I learnt, is important.
The people I was alleged to have depicted with too much sympathy were Ukrainians. And the people I’d allegedly made too morally complex were Jews. The anger emerged in large part because my critics believed historic victims should not be portrayed negatively (so you can’t have a morally deracinated Jewish or black character). This escalated into the now widespread claim that minorities have a right to control how they’re portrayed in all forms of the creative arts.
The desire to control how one is portrayed, how one is thought of, is both deeply human and utterly totalitarian. It was pervasive when societies were founded on status, not contract. A hint of the past is still visible in those countries with lèse-majesté laws, which work to protect a sovereign’s “inherent dignity and honour.”
I didn’t accept the claim; there was a tremendous row, and because no-one gave any ground, matters remained in stalemate. I maintained—and maintain—that laws constraining how one speaks or writes about others must be construed narrowly in liberal democracies, and for good reason: if we all get to protect our “inherent dignity and honour” then speech becomes impossible.
This did, however, generate some seriously bad behaviour from some of my critics. One senior figure in Australian publishing called around the Australian press telling them not to publish anything I’d written. I was spat on during a long-haul flight. Four books about the controversy were published, one of them called The Demidenko File, a deliberate and rather distasteful reference to UK publication The Rushdie File.
For more than a year, Australia Post delivered my mail in sacks. When people started sending me pornography and dog shit, I was forced to go to the police. My mail was diverted to the local copshop, sorted, and I collected it each afternoon. Occasionally the police missed the odd nasty missive, but overall, their filtering system worked.
Because the criticism came overwhelmingly from the Jewish lobby and was utter paranoid nonsense, there were two unpleasant after-effects. One manifested almost immediately, and one didn’t manifest itself until 2015.
The first was a very deliberate play for my affections from the pro-Palestine lobby.
I was sent, over a period of months, the entirety of Edward Said’s oeuvre, along with a variety of invitations to art exhibits and academic presentations, typically coupled with accounts of pro-Palestinian individuals (often academics) with similar stories to mine. These included formal complaints to professional associations—as was done to me—along with direct approaches to employers to try to get the employee in question sacked (this was also done to me at various points, but not with the same intensity as has happened to say, Kathleen Stock or Graham Linehan thanks to the trans lobby).
I am the sort of person who—when sent free books—tends to read them. This may explain why I review so many. So I read Professor Said, forming the view that here was another individual who objected to the way he and his were portrayed. This (as should be obvious) is an argument I reject, regardless of who makes it. It meant I was not recruited to their cause, although I know people who have been, including an extremely able Australian journalist whose work I admire.
The second came about when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader of the Opposition and British Jews started accusing him and his confreres of anti-semitism. I spent some time—2015 to roughly the end of 2017—assuming these accusations were confected nonsense, and this despite being temperamentally (and often electorally) conservative. I was aided in this by the 2017 treatment of Irish writer Kevin Myers, another able figure whose work I have long admired. Like me, Myers refused to go over to the Palestinian side. Unlike me, he sued his various accusers in defamation and won, then promptly retired.
It was only when I encountered Labour supporters retweeting Rothschild conspiracies that I started to suspect there may be something in the anti-Corbyn claims. This is something of which, however, I could only be fully persuaded by doing my own due diligence. Had various little boys not repeatedly cried “wolf” over a number of years, this would not have been necessary.
I thought—by falsifying both empirical and moral claims about the importance of literary representativeness—I’d “win” the argument. And I suppose, technically, I did. However, no matter how brilliantly a hoax is executed, the people a hoaxer wraps in a giant omelette don’t thank you for it. I warned Helen Pluckrose when she embarked on her “Grievance Studies” hoax with James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian that the three of them would have the same experience I did.
“But ours is different,” she assured me. “You did it with fiction, which is always more ambiguous.” I haven’t had cause to speak to her since—Helen’s (sensibly) retired from the commentating life—but I do wonder if she now sees my point. I’m not sure hoaxes are the right way to address the mess universities and arts bureaucracies have made of our common cultural life. They weren’t right in 1995, and aren’t right now, in part because people who believe things like “Own Voices” in literature or who went after Kate Clanchy for her use of adjectives didn’t reason themselves into that position, so you can’t reason them out of it.
And even when they’re funny, hoaxes are still tools of reason.
However, I should note that at least part of the problem with my hoax was that The Hand that Signed the Paper was too successful, and not only in sales terms. When I first conceived of the idea, I thought I was good enough as a writer to win one of the various state-based literary prizes on offer for “multicultural writing” or “ethnic stories” (yes, this nonsense has been around for a while). I’d read quite a few leading examples and was reasonably sure the short stories I’d written in high school were of better quality. My plan was to roll up, accept the award, and blow the whistle on myself. I wanted to undermine the whole idea of awards based on race, ethnic heritage, or sex.
The problem, of course, was that the Miles Franklin isn’t that sort of award. Nor were any of the other awards I won. The Miles Franklin is Australia’s most prominent literary award, the country’s equivalent of the Booker Prize. I was (and remain) the youngest ever winner. And the people I knocked out on the way to claiming the big brass ring included not only previous Miles Franklin winners but also a Booker winner (Peter Carey). In a sense, I was now trapped inside my own hoax.
That early prominence forced me to call on the emotional and familial resources provided by my parents when young, most notably two of my father’s observations.
Dad’s first and most important observation ran thus: don’t take criticism from people you wouldn’t ask for advice. His second: apologies exist to restore a relationship, and if there is no relationship to repair, don’t apologise. When it became clear that my hoax hadn’t shifted the dial on bogus claims of cultural appropriation or bogus accusations of racism, I already knew how to move on, to eschew destructiveness and nihilism.
When something doesn’t quite work out, or works out in unexpected ways, landing on one’s feet depends to a great degree on not lingering in the magical world of what-could-have-been. If there’s something in my response to a cancel mob that allowed me to emerge for the most part unscathed, it was my willingness to leave various possible worlds behind and content myself with this one.
“If ifs and ands were pots and pans,” my mother used to say, “there’d be no need for ironmongers.”
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