“… all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures, a welter of self-induced miseries and joys, blinding and masking the essential personalities in the frozen gestures of courtship …”.
This quote about love from Germaine Greer also applies to the culture of writing and literature with a capital “L” in Australia. Writing and books are like love and romance. For every ennobling marriage filled with integrity, respect, and wit, there are dozens of empty, boring relationships that disappoint both participants. The former are experiencing love, the latter are impersonating it.
Likewise, for every great book there are dozens if not hundreds of books impersonating writing, as opposed to actually doing it. If, as Will Self famously said, “Tony Blair plays the air guitar of politics”, then it is equally true that hundreds if not thousands of Australian writers are air-guitaring their way to literary sales and success.
Seasoned Australian author Michael Wilding is acutely aware of this disparity. The air guitarists of writing are the subjects of his latest novel National Treasure (he uses the phrase advisedly). Wilding’s yarn is a searing satire of Australian literary culture and its slavering devotion to the big names, the blockbuster writers and the egos that bloom like fungus in the fetid, cloistered, celebrity worlds they inhabit.
The “national treasure” in Wilding’s story is Scobie Spruce, a writer of such renown he has been described as the “crown jewels” by political leaders. Spruce has written many books, (the sales of which seem to be overestimated) and has a contract with an international publishing company, a house with a view of Sydney harbour, a rich, shallow, status-addicted girlfriend and a high profile. His reputation is apparently so good that public libraries buy drafts of his novels while he is still alive.
Behind the scenes however, it ain’t so pretty. Spruce seems to spend zero time actually writing. He is a drug addict and a cynical exploiter of his reading public and his publisher. His girlfriend Claudia comes from new money and seeks the status that intimacy with a famous writer provides.
When Scobie hires a “research assistant” - bland, pot-smoking, morally inert, man-of-few-words Keith Plant (the name’s a bit of a giveaway) he provides a foil for Scobie and Claudia and the scene is set for a piss-take of great proportions. To make things interesting, Scobie has enemies and competitors and they provide the mystery in a plot about literary lions in the gladiatorial ring. It is not an edifying tale.
National Treasure put me in mind of Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s satire of Fleet Street journalism, and Vile Bodies, Waugh’s grotesque portrait of pre-war London society. Wilding’s characters, like Waugh’s, are mostly sodden with alcohol. But there is nothing of the Brideshead Revisited tone in Wilding’s seedy, Sydney backdrops and Wilding’s not above Benny Hill style jokes about sex and body parts (the very upper class Waugh would never be so base as to refer to sex directly).
Wilding’s style in National Treasure is also reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen (author of Skin Tight, Strip Tease and Tourist Season), an author who satirises contemporary American society in a seedy, easy-going tone. Hiassen and Wilding both write short, pacey books with tight plots, plenty of colourful dialogue and a strong sense of place (Florida in Hiassen’s case, Sydney in Wilding’s) and there are strong similarities when it comes to their portrayal of the nouveau riche.
The poor old nouveau riche are literally stripped bare in National Treasure and so is the cynical big publisher that exploits them. Honourable, independent Australian presses like Scribe, UQP or Text don’t get a look in here because National Treasure is about the worst, not the best of Australian publishing.
It’s a bleak picture, but while the Australian literary scene still focuses on a tiny group of literary celebrities and the bread and circuses of literary festivals and insults the reading public’s intelligence with genres like “chick lit”, National Treasure is timely.
The characters are grotesque but not excessively so, because as other reviewers have pointed out, there is as much truth as fiction in the story. At the last book launch I participated in, there were two sober people in the panel of five writers (I was one of the two). The celebrity “launcher” (host of a popular ABC arts program) seemed hung-over, had clearly not glanced at the anthology of short stories he was launching and kept banging on about cricket and dingoes (neither of which were even obliquely referred to in the book being launched).
I had a short story in that anthology and true to form, a strange old lady came up to me after the launch to congratulate me on my writing. No, Wilding does not overstate the debauched and carnivalesque characters and “wretched cant” of the world of writing and publishing in Australia. His book will dash the stars from the eyes of any deluded up and coming writers and should be required reading for every writer and creative writing student in Australia.