Capital Week: ‘My Bad: How a Book and an Essay About Bad Writing Made Good on My Social Democratic Ideals’, by Sam Twyford-Moore

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To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Today: Sam Twyford-Moore on bad writing and neoliberalism.


In late 2013, bloated billionaire playboy James Packer, surely feeling genuinely sui generis about his particular brand of philanthropic generosity, and directly following acknowledgement from the NSW government of his successful application for the exclusive $1.5 billion casino license for Barangaroo, announced that he would be gifting $60 million to the arts in Sydney. That funding would be divided in two, with half being sent out to Western Sydney, in a special pool to be administered by Packer’s own Crown Resorts Foundation. In The Conversation, James Potts, Professor of Economics at RMIT University, stood up for Packer’s donation—while also declaring that he owned common stock in Crown Resorts—as opinion swelled online that the gift had been coerced by the state government. The implication was that the benefaction was blood money, spilled during the negotiations for the eventuating Barangaroo casino license. Packer, for his part, gave the pledged paper over with something of a shrug – in announcing the funding, he made a point of stressing that he was not “the most committed art and theatre goer” and that the decision largely belonged to his sister, Gretel Packer, “and I do what my sister tells me.” Many words here could be spent on the reasoning behind this investment in the arts, and its half-hearted nature, but of more interest is the economic and cultural impact of sending the money westward.

Why Western Sydney? It wasn’t just a cultural cry of “West is best!” that won over the Packers. Somewhat surprisingly, it was in order to address economic inequality in cultural investment. The designation of funding to Parramatta and its surrounds—so very far from Barangaroo’s city-hugging shoreline—came after reporting from conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph, that only one per cent of the arts budget in NSW went to the populous sprawl. The disparity was clear; Western Sydney, after all, holds about a quarter of the state’s population. But why should Packer, as part of Australia’s one per cent of richest wealth holders, even care? His answer was convincing, if scripted: “I am most excited about the Western Sydney Art Fund, for too long the vast majority of Sydney’s population has missed out on this sort of endeavour and many of these organisations have had to exist on the tightest of budgets.” Tight budgets are the day-to-day reality of arts organisations, and Packer’s nod to their existence—coming only a matter of months before George Brandis went on his infamous funding raids of the Australia Council for the Arts the following year—at least shows a knowledge of the inner workings of a fragile sector.

It remains difficult, however, to parse exactly why the funding had been designated to a location so unrelated to Barangaroo. Unless, of course, there was some recognition deep within Packer’s brain that Barangaroo, as a site, was historically significant for the working class of Sydney, containing as it does the strip known as The Hungry Mile – the name harbourside workers gave to the docklands in the area. There is an echo here. While Western Sydney has boomed in terms of its population, it has shown slower growth economically than any other area in Sydney, with higher total and youth unemployment. Perhaps Packer, hungry to transform historic sites of inequality, is marking it out for potential development down the track – dreaming of a fourth casino for Sydney (parked, perhaps, next to Panthers World of Entertainment) in a world that barely needs the nightmare of one to begin with.

One of the organisations who would certainly qualify for Packer’s funding—and could well be named a recipient—is SWEATSHOP, the provocatively titled and capitalised, self-proclaimed ‘literary collective’, which is currently based out of the Western Sydney University, and has roots based in programs based at the Bankstown Youth Development Service. In a recent essay titled ‘Bad Writer’, published on the Sydney Review of Books, the group’s leader, novelist and critic Michael Mohammed Ahmad explained that SWEATSHOP

is devoted to empowering people from socio-economically challenged and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through reading, writing, critical thinking, creative expression and creative outcomes. The principles of SWEATSHOP are built on the ideas of African-American feminist, scholar and activist, bell hooks, who … [argues] that all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture depend on mass-based literacy movements because degrees of literacy determine how we see what we see.

The essay served as something of a ten-year marker of Ahmad’s work in the communities of Western Sydney and across Australia, working, as he does, towards mass-based literacy and enabling a new generation of literary writers. As early as 2012, Ahmad had been recognised by the Kirk Robson Award, acknowledging as it does “outstanding leadership from young artists and arts professionals working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in reconciliation and social justice.” I have worked with Ahmad in a number of professional contexts—engaging him as a speaker and a performer at a number of literary festivals—and have always thrilled at his ability to challenge preconceived notions that literary audiences may have at any event. Some in the audience would protest his confronting presentation style—surely a sign of any ‘Good Writer’ is the ability to challenge the status quo—but Ahmad would plead with them, “This is just how my family talk to each other around the dinner table.” (This will become important later.)

Days after ecstatically reading Ahmad’s essay, browsing a local bookstore, I stumbled upon Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed The World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016). Published practically within days of each other, how do these two understandings of ‘bad writing’ converge? (This essay truly is the product of coincidence.) Weiner’s short book traces the trajectory of the long-forgotten Russian novel, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Cornell University Press, 1863) and its radical rational egoist ethics, which influenced many in socialist Russia of the time, inciting them to act. Decades later, Chernyshevsky inspired Russian born Ayn Rand and her capitalist novels-as-manifestos, which mutated into the economic reality of contemporary neoliberal America, and its eventuating financial crises. The book’s bad ideas seemed able to sway opposite ends of the ideological divide. Chernyshevsky’s novel awoke a new political class in Russia, one given to extremism and terrorism. Rand, in turn, with her awful novels The Fountainhead (1942) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), awoke a class of economic extremists, led largely by her devoted mentee and deregulation enthusiast Alan Greenspan, in his role as Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States. This is what bad writing can do when it hits the mainstream.

Weiner is not overly interested in the categorical distinctions of bad writing in any straight literary, or aesthetic, sense. Chernyshevsky’s novel sounds laughable, but much of what Weiner deems bad about it is done so through its subsequent political import (in the same way the rotten philosophical core of Rand’s novels mutate into the rotten core of contemporary fiscal policy, for example). Weiner does not spend a great deal of time looking into what badness wreaks, only briefly looking into the realities of Greenspan’s reforms, and so, perhaps, shows little interest in documenting exactly how the world was destroyed. Instead, he is interested in instances of resistance to historic efforts of destruction. The majority of the book, in fact, documents Dostoevsky’s allergic reaction to Chernyshevsky’s bad writing (Weiner is an Associate Professor in Russian and Comparative Literature at Wellesley College, alma mater of Hillary Clinton). Weiner suggests that Dostoevsky reinvented himself as a writer in order to combat Chernyshevsky and the apocalyptic potential of his text.

The criticisms, to date, of Ahmad’s usefully provocative essay were largely contained within the relative private structures of social media. These oppositional opinions were voiced by middle-class educators—teachers within private colleges and public schools—who questioned his teaching practices and took offence at the way that Ahmad wrote about his students. A couple of prominent teacher-authors protested that Ahmad did not have the requisite grasp on ‘creative pedagogy’ and that there was a class war raging somewhere beneath the surface – that Ahmad was, in fact, sneering at his working class students. Such swipes assumed much—far too much—about Ahmad’s own background and the make-up of SWEATSHOP as a whole to be taken seriously. And Ahmad, in fact, pre-empted any such readings early in the essay, in which he explained his enthusiasm for the approach of bell hooks:

I have always found this to be a significant alternative to the usual way that Australian parents, carers, teachers and politicians discuss the importance of literacy to you people – in the romantic sense that it is important simply because it is a good in itself or the capitalist sense that it is important because it will give you access to a good job. For hooks, degrees of literacy define our ability to be critical of social systems (which my be racist, sexist, homophobic and or classist) and to create alternative to these systems, specifically through critical consciousness, critical discuss and artistic self-representation.

Education, particularly equal access of education, has been the key circuit-breaker in inequality. Weiner spends a critical stretch of his book outlining Dostoevsky’s demands to educate the peasantry in order to promote the ‘Russian Idea’. Perhaps it is here that we find a direct connection between Ahmad’s attempts to enlighten his students and readers about the dangers of ‘bad writing’ and Dostoevsky’s pleas, written in the copy for a subscriber drive benefiting his failed literary journal Time, for an intellectual revolution – a convergence of all classes, and the “spread of intensive education, as quickly as possible and at any cost.” Weiner points to Dostoevsky’s use of the word ‘intensive’ as telling, in the same way we may apply it to Ahmad’s pedagogical philosophy and practice. Describing the ‘Russian Idea’, Weiner goes on to suggest that:

Dostoevsky seems to have had in mind something similar to the version of sobornost that his contemporary, the Slavophile philosopher Aleksey Komyakov, described as Russia’s ancient past and future salvation: sobornost was Komyakov’s word for religious ‘togetherness’ or, literally, ‘collective’ of the Russian people, a commune based upon the historical obshchina or mir. This was an Orthodox village that had the power to decide disputes and distribute land amongst peasants.

If Ahmad’s ideas, as expressed through the SWEATSHOP Collective, were put into practice more widely, perhaps we would see something not too dissimilar from the sobornost, with Ahmad becoming a writer and teacher of expert resistance. It is also easy, however, to make a completely opposite reading of Ahmad’s essay, especially as it has since been revealed that the stories of Ahmad’s students within the essay exist largely as composites, with some partly obscured and others complete fictions. On face value alone, Ahmad’s hectoring of his students certainly risks coming off as an Ayn Rand-style ‘tough love’ school of self-improvement—self-improvement over the welfare of all others—but such a reading would be to miss the point entirely. The care for the success of the individual in Ahmad’s view stands in line with the care for the community as a whole, bringing everyone up together at the same time. And while he may spar individually with players, he doesn’t push for the kind of violent melee that Rand’s free market principles ultimately represent. Nor should his approach be surprising; Ahmad’s excellent debut novel, is, of course, titled The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014) and his love of boxing aligns with the fact that boxing gyms are often sites of community for the working class. He is not a writer who is in it for himself, nor one who exists without a sense of family, community, collective and place

Ahmad isn’t writing against a Nikolai Chernyshevsky – a singularly bad writer who has published a novel expressing ideological points that demand a counter reply or outright rejection. (One could imagine it being Helen Dale, pumping out a so-called novel of ideas between sessions advising libertarian David Leyonhjelm, had she not blown up her literary career as Helen Demidenko decades prior). Indeed, mediocre Australian fiction tends to be bad because it does not engage in politics and ideology in any meaningful way. Instead, I would suggest that Ahmad is writing against the grain of an entire arts culture, one that finds it easy to ignore the writer and the reality of their livelihood and class backgrounds. Again, there’s a potential to misread his intentions: that Ahmad is denouncing the aspirations and writing ability of his students for his own gain. His colleagues’ work certainly does not help. Within the wider SWEATSHOP Collective there can be found an antagonism towards mainstream literary culture in Australia, as in Luke Carman’s confused jeremiad published in Meanjin, which demonstrated a mistrust of literary centres of power, namely Melbourne. Others, writing for the Sydney Review of Books, have shown cynicism towards the make up of literary prize culture (‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’, Ivor Indyk) or writers’ festivals (‘Diabolus in Festum’, Carman once again with feeling). Within such pieces festers a hatred for the workers of arts culture and lurking, somewhere lower, a Randian purchase on the virtues of selfishness; the literary writer (typically white and male), prizing singular credit, must always put himself first. Ahmad averts explicit antagonism, and its accompanying individualism, with his wider focus on the cultural system, evoking literacy—the founding of any system—as his starting goal. The way to take on an oppressive system isn’t through sideline criticisms, but through mass participation: to occupy. Take a seat at the table, and, from there, change the topic of conversation, or, indeed, refuse service, turn the table over and start again.

Literature, as a whole, could learn to fight on this level. In the most recent annual report from the Australia Council for the Arts, it was revealed that literature, as an art form, was given only 2.7% of overall funding (critic and publisher Geordie Williamson quipped that literature was in danger of being out-funded by ‘miscellaneous’, which received 1.6% of total funds). This inequality of arts funding increasingly needs addressing. Certainly questions as to why symphony orchestras, opera and large theatre companies receive the top levels of funding, and what connections lead to these decisions, are worth investigating. Just as The Daily Telegraph found a disparity in arts funding within the Western suburbs of Sydney, so to do these reports expose the status of writers within the wider culture – essentially consigning them as the working class of the arts.

One reason given for the tendency for literature to be underfunded—something whispered or hinted at, but never stated outright—is that the literary culture tends to lean left of the left, and that those in power understand the dangers inherent in oppositional literatures. The truth is that the attack on the literary arts is ideological, and we need a strong collective of writers to counter it. When Senator George Brandis floated his brutal art sector reforms, he did so under the guise of promoting ‘Excellence’ – as in, his fund would be titled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). This seemed innocuous to the majority of the population, but ‘excellence’ in Brandis’s limited thinking is reserved for specific art forms (symphony orchestras, opera et al), accessed primarily through audiences with large amounts of capital (NPEA’s draft guidelines did not even mention literature). Indeed, many observed at the time that Brandis was making over arts funding in his own image – a great example of Randian rational egoism if ever there was one. But the NPEA was not a policy of deregulation, rather it was the very definition of interventionist. Financial deregulation, perhaps, requires cultural interventionism to truly wreak its havoc. Locally, the deregulation of property development in Sydney—which amounts to financial deregulation within the developer-friendly agenda of Mike Baird and the Liberal government—has been twinned with an over-regulation of culture largely via Baird’s ongoing lock-out laws. This has most visibly affected the music sector—whose profitable working hours are curbed—but rising rents and cost of living having a flow on effect for writers too. Crippling economic policy for an already financial downtrodden breed of artist is a sustained, strategic act of silencing.

Packer’s private philanthropy, even if delivered with a shrug, should be encouraged to combat such policies. We should not suggest, however, that artists ‘take the money and run’, particularly when the funds amassed originate largely from personal gambling losses. Packer, after all, lives in a world of ulterior motives, and while there is no evidence that he has ever read Ayn Rand—or, indeed, read any novel—he trades on a massive inherited wealth built on her principles. Weiner’s book on Rand exists as a short history of literature building a resistance to such philosophical inheritances, which gives it guidebook-like qualities for a reader with social democratic ideals in mind. Ahmad, meanwhile, has provided us with the active contemporary model.

If there is a divergence between Ahmad and Weiner, it is surely that Weiner sees bad writing as deriving its badness from the political poison of its own bad ideas. Ahmad’s definition remains a categorical and qualitative form of badness – a literary lack of quality. But Ahmad is surely not unaware of the economic and political implications of SWEATSHOP, and his fight for community-strong literacy and against bad ideologies born of individualism and rational egoism. He is working hard at lifting a whole class—in both the economic and educational sense of the word—out of a position of disadvantage. Read alongside Weiner’s useful book, Ahmad’s essay can only hint at a sense of growing economic disparity in Australia—which wasn’t his explicit topic—but it inherently suggests that literature, with literacy at its base note, might be one of the more imaginative solutions to inequality. Ahmad, quite distinctly from the toxic historical line from Chernyshevsky to Rand to Greenspan, is inviting an entire class to punch, defiantly, up.


Postscript 

After writing and filing this essay, I flew to Sydney on November 9, 2016 to meet with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and while I was in the air, my phone on flight mode, Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States of America. Taking the train westward to meet with Ahmad, I was dejected. Earlier in the day, while the polls were predicting a win for Hillary Clinton, Ahmad had texted me: “If Hillary wins, we’ll have Lebanese food. If Trump wins, we’ll have rat poison.” As the stations of the Bankstown line blurred by I replied: “Hope you’re preparing the rat poison!” We ended up having the Lebanese food regardless, a generous spread from Ahmad’s local spot. As we sat and ate, we talked about his work with SWEATSHOP, his Bad Writer essay, and my response to it, and all I could think was: “Resistance, resistance, resistance, resistance, resistance, resistance…” Later, after a couple of beers and a Valium borrowed from my new wife, I thought something like In the post-Trump age, good writing and great writing that counters bad ideology will be the first act of survival. That’s all there is for me to say about this bad writing business. I just hope we’ll all be good writers, or at least interrogative readers of bad writing (Trump’s disruptive tweets included), in the face of what History is about to hurl at us all.


Sam Twyford-Moore is the host of The Rereaders podcast and a writer.