Michael Wilding

A Walk on the Wild Side
Michael Wilding looks back over fifty years of la vie bohème 

 

Welcome to our new series, “The State of the Art.”  For the next several issues, we’ll feature interviews with different writers, editors and publishers willing to share their views on writing in and out of the academy.

We’re pleased to begin our series with Michael Wilding.  A native of Worcester, England and emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, Wilding is in his fifth decade of writing fiction and criticism and was the founder of the first graduate creative writing program in Australia.  His lastest work, Wild Bleak Bohemia, is a documentary exploring the lives of Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall.  That work followed two two literary detective novels and an autobiographical account of the 1970s alternative press scene, Wild and Woolley: A Publishing Memoir.  We wanted to know how Wilding keeps reinventing himself, what keeps him going.  How did the optimistic time-capsule of literary publishing he presents in Wild and Woolley turn into the bleak landscape of chopped funding and decimated libraries he writes essays about today? 

 

Driftless Review:  How does it feel to look back over such a prolific body of work?  You already have books on your entire career–Don Graham’s book, for instance, Michael Wilding and the Fiction of Instant Experience: Stories, Novels and Memoirs, 1963-2012.   Does the ‘weight’ of such a career make it easier or harder to keep writing?

Michael Wilding:  No, I don’t find it a burden. In some ways it works as a relief. It means that having written that amount I don’t feel the need to push myself forward, I’m happy to take the occasional back seat. Or, to use another metaphor, I’m happy to provide some backing and continuo, without feeling the need to stand out there banging out a solo.

Driftless Review:  How did that affect your most recent work?

Michael Wilding:  In Wild Bleak Bohemia I let the documents take the spotlight, and my own contribution was to provide some linking connective tissue, as unobtrusively as possible. I wanted something that gave the great stories, the gossip, the anecdotes about the three 19th century writers I was dealing with, but gave them directly and authentically in the words of the original participants, observers, friends, and memoir writers. I did not want to intervene between the reader and those original voices. I wanted as far as possible to exclude the mediating voice of the narrator. I wanted the authoritative biographer to be absent.

Of course, that cannot totally be achieved. After all, the choice of which anecdotes, which contemporary commentator, which newspaper report was to be included or excluded was made by me. The selection of documents, and the decisions on where to cut them, where to begin and where to end each excerpt, were mine. And in terms of achieving readability, cutting and trimming and juxtaposing is crucial. And there is also an authorial shaping, in the combining of the realist base of historical documentation with the modernist aesthetic of collage and intertextuality. So there is an authorial consciousness still there. But not obtrusively so.

As for making it easier or harder to keep writing, I think the crucial thing is having something to say. If there’s something impelling me to say something, then a form in which to express it will turn up. If I’m not clear in my head what I want to say, then I have to wait until it becomes clear.

 

DR:  You’ve said that Wild Bleak Bohemia started almost twenty years ago and was supposed to be a novel. Could you take us through that metamorphosis?

MW:  I had written a literary critical study of Marcus Clarke’s work and edited a couple of selections of his writing back in the 1970s. Because of this I was approached a dozen years back to help in editing a biography of Clarke that Clarke’s old school friend Cyril Hopkins, brother of the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, had written. Cyril’s manuscript had lain unpublished  for nearly a century. I agreed, expecting the majority of the work to have been done by my co-editors. But as the years passed, and there were many of them, it turned into a major project, and I was drawn deeper and deeper into exploring and annotating the details of Clarke’s life.

Biography, when I was an undergraduate studying literature, was something that was generally ignored. The focus in those years was on developing a critical response. When I first began lecturing at Sydney University, the dominant discourse was that of F. R. Leavis in Britain and the New Criticism of the USA.  Biography, along with any political or religious or sociological approach, was absolutely to be avoided. The process of co-editing Cyril Hopkins’s biography of Clarke, consequently, was one of discovery for me.

The biography was published in 2009, and that, I assumed, was the end of my labours. But as the project was drawing to a close I received an invitation from the Adam Lindsay Gordon Commemorative Committee in Melbourne to talk to their members. Of the three schools in England that Adam Lindsay Gordon had attended, the last one, the Royal Grammar School, Worcester, I had attended a century after him. Indeed, I had been secretary of the Adam Lindsay Gordon Society, which was what would now be called a creative writing group. The Melbourne committee had contacted the school and someone had directed them to me in Sydney as someone who might be able to address them. Again, I knew little about Gordon’s life, and his poetry was not on any syllabus I taught. But when I first arrived in Sydney I had written an article on an episode in Gordon’s life while he was still at the Grammar School. He had arranged to ride in a steeplechase, but the horse he was to ride had been impounded for debt. He liberated it from the stables and in some accounts won the race. Formal charges were avoided, but Gordon was shortly after packed off to Australia. I examined the various contradictory accounts of his departure from England and established nothing but uncertainty. I got my sister back in England to look up Berrow’s Worcester Journal for an account of the steeplechase at the appropriate date. It reported that all horses had been entered under false names and all riders rode anonymously. I thought it made an interesting article, not least in its absolute inconclusiveness: ‘Adam Lindsay Gordon in England: The Legend of the Steeplechase’. It was the sort of antiquarianism that was anathema to the high seriousness of the Leavisites.

Now, fifty years later, I had to come up with something else on Gordon. The Yorick Club seemed a likely topic. Established in Melbourne in 1868, it provided a forum for clubmen with literary and journalistic interests. Gordon and Clarke were foundation members. So I delivered my talk on the relationship of Clarke and Gordon, drawn from anecdotes about the Yorick discovered in my researches for the Hopkins’ biography.

Along with Clarke and Gordon there was a third famous and still remembered writer, the Australian born poet Henry Kendall. The idea of the three of them leading the literary life together, getting drunk, behaving badly, celebrating la vie bohème, and amidst it all writing their unforgettable works, appealed to me. My own fiction had explored contemporary bohemia. Maybe, I thought, looking round for what to write next, a novel about these three nineteenth century bohemians would be the way to go. A topic for which I had some personal empathy and for which I had assembled a substantial amount of background material.

The actual overlap of the three of them in Melbourne, from Kendall’s arrival in April 1869 to Gordon’s suicide in June 1870, was a mere fourteen months. It was a long enough period for a narrative. There were accounts of the Yorick club by Clarke and by Kendall. There were a couple of accounts of Clarke and Gordon horseriding together. There was a brief exchange of letters between Gordon and Kendall, and a handful of complaints from Kendall about Clarke. And the history of the Yorick recorded of Gordon that ‘once in an access of jovial feelings he pitched Marcus up to the ceiling and caught him coming down.’

But there were no narrative details, no records of long conversations, no accounts of shared meals or theatre visits. And I felt a resistance to inventing such details. The novels and stories I had written over the years generally drew on experiences I had had, or observed, or on gossip I had engaged in. Fiction for me needed to be grounded in reality. When I wrote The Paraguayan Experiment about the New Australia settlement, the dialogue was always based on the words the characters had used in articles or letters or interviews. And a substantial part of the book consisted of documents – letters, newspaper cuttings, British Foreign Office reports and so on. When I came to write Raising Spirits, Making Gold and Swapping Wives: The True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly, the documents became dominant. They were linked together with narrative and context, but the focus was on the surviving records. Although I had originally thought of the book as a novel, it turned itself into a historical documentary.

And so, now, the idea of a novel about Clarke, Gordon and Kendall mutated into the idea of a non-fictional account of their time together.

 

DR:  How much do you identify with each of these men? It seems there’s an aspect of each of them uncannily similar to Michael Wilding.

MW: I don’t think I quite identified with my three subjects. But I certainly had an empathy for them. Since Gordon had that connection with my home town and school, I felt some association with his situation. But he was a poet, whereas Clarke was a novelist and short story writer and editor and so my interests were closer to his. There is an article by Laurie Hergenhan on ‘Literary New Chums: Michael Wilding and Marcus Clarke’ which explores some of the similarities and parallels  – even down to recalling a stray cat that adopted me and whom I called Marcus. Both Clarke and Gordon were upper middle class figures: I felt closer to Kendall in our shared proletarian background. But in the attempts of all three of them to write and get published and interpret the world around them I could see parallels. And I learned from them – especially from Clarke’s incorporation of historical documents into his novel His Natural Life, and his recycling of material from journalism to essay and from novel back into journalism.

 

DR: You started one of the very first creative writing program in Australia. Could you say a little about that? How was the “creative writing program scene” different in Australia as compared to other places in the US and UK? Do these programs actually help anyone to learn to write?

MW: A number of Institutes and Colleges of Advanced Education soon to achieve university status already taught writing in Australia, but not the universities. Establishing this at a traditional university like Sydney was a breakthrough. The news spread rapidly and I had calls from Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Hong Kong asking for advice on how to get such a course approved. I told them, as best I could.

In 1986 I had been invited to teaching creative writing at the University of California at Santa Barbara. ‘How do you do it?’ I asked the other writing teachers when I arrived. ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘we were hoping you would tell us.’

I returned to the University of Sydney to find yet another of my literature courses had been dropped from the syllabus. ‘Rested’ as my solicitous colleagues put it. It was always risky taking leave. What new course could I devise that would meet with approval? The prospect of a dozen first year tutorials loomed menacingly. I had to teach something.

I was ambivalent about teaching creative writing. I wasn’t sure that it could be done, I’m still not. Could you produce writers that way? But there again, did you produce literary critics by teaching literature courses?

When I was an undergraduate, continuous assessment had not been introduced. I wrote my weekly essay and read it to my tutor, and that was it. It was never formally marked. There were no examinations after the second term until finals at the end of the third year. This meant that you could allocate your time as you wished. This was a marvellous opportunity for a young would-be writer. If you wanted to take a term off to edit the student paper or produce a play or write a novel, you could. I did. Then you worked hard to catch up. When I arrived at Sydney University it had examinations at the end of each year, but through the sixties and seventies it still had a civilized programme of three ten week terms and three vacations a year, which allowed some space for students to develop their creative gifts.

But the introduction of continuous assessment after every course turned the university into a conveyer belt, with no time available for students to write poetry or stories or plays or student journalism. And with the reduction of scholarships and re-introduction of fees, students were having to take jobs  to support themselves. They no longer had the spare time that university used to give them, in which they could write. With the introduction of a creative writing course aspiring writers would at least be given the opportunity to write at a crucial stage in their development. It was in order to provide this space in the timetable for young writers to write that I decided that introducing a creative writing course might be a positive thing.

And importantly, it would be taught as part of a traditional English Literature syllabus. I could have some confidence that my students would have some acquaintance with good writing. In their other English courses they hopefully encountered the basics of the literary tradition. As English syllabuses are eroded this, of course, is becoming problematical. More worrying still is the way that many creative writing programs that have since developed are in Communications or Media or Creative Arts, not English literature. This means that the students are likely to have little or no acquaintance with literature. They are missing the essential context of the experience of widespread reading.

Creative writing was not deemed respectable or serious by traditional academics in Australia. But the respectable and the serious were gradually being excised from the university, anyway. Rather than retreat into despair and endless lamentations about the degradation of the age, I decided to take advantage of the general collapse of tradition.

I had dropped by the Department early one hot summer morning to pick up my mail, unshaven, bare-footed, unpressed, unironed. Inevitably when in such casual mode and planning a swift return home, I encountered Dame Leonie Kramer, Professor of Australian Literature, in the corridor. For a number of years I had been following the strategy of always proposing or demanding something whenever I encountered a professor or head of department. That way they tended to duck when they saw you coming and leave you alone. Otherwise they would get in first with some extra marking or a couple of extra classes. If ever there was an occasion for this strategy, it was now. Divert attention from the stubbled jaw and stubbed toes.

The Department was re-structuring. In those years it was always re-structuring, probably still is. Every time we got a new structure in place we deconstructed it. It was a way of demoralizing and degrading the teaching of the humanities. And it worked. This particular year Australian Literature had to be re-packaged and we needed a new ninety-minute or two-hour course, whatever module was currently in mode. Tentatively I suggested creative writing might be a possibility.

Professor Dame Leonie Kramer stood in the corridor and examined my unshaven, sockless, shoeless self. I felt like Bertie Wooster in the presence of an aunt. ‘If it had been anyone else but you, Michael,’ she said. Was that a yes, or a no?

It turned out to be a yes. And so the first Australian university undergraduate course in creative writing was established.

And graduate courses? I had not planned anything. But suddenly I perceived the great need for them. It was another corridor meeting with Dame Leonie. She told me that the next writer-in-residence wanted to teach creative writing. I could see my carefully constructed plan disintegrate. The writer-in-residence would be taking the course and I would be doing those twelve first year tutorials after all unless I came up with a new scheme.

‘She would prefer graduate students,’ said Dame Leonie.

Graduate students, I reflected. I could see little prospect of getting an honours Master of Arts programme in creative writing approved by the department and faculty in time, if ever. Let alone a doctorate. But the department also ran a course-work programme for a pass M.A. In the past it had largely been used by schoolteachers upgrading their qualifications, taking courses that often made a point of duplicating Higher School Certificate texts. Now that the school syllabus had fewer literary texts, and now that teachers do a Bachelor of Education rather than a Bachelor of Arts degree, its enrollments had been declining. It was a comparatively uncontentious place to offer a course. It had a catchment of students already enrolled. It was taught in the evenings, something most people were not eager to do. But evening courses would leave me the mornings free to write.

The Sydney Institute of Technology had just announced it would be offering the first Australian graduate course in creative writing next year. If we put a creative writing component into our pass M.A. for second semester, we could start the first Australian M.A. writing course this year and we could beat them.

‘Let’s beat them,’ said Dame Leonie.

So we did.

As for how to teach writing, the best practical advice I ever had came from the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, who set up the first university graduate writing course in Britain at the University of East Anglia in 1971. ‘The secret of creative writing courses,’ he told me, ‘is to select the good students for admission. The ones who already know how to write. They teach themselves.’

The way to become a writer is just do do it. And to read other writers. You don’t need to enroll in a course.

 

DR:  Was the state of the academy or academic writing part of the reason why you took early retirement? Would you do it again?

MW:  I had reached the point where I could take my superannuation and afford to live on it. I could’ve stayed another two years and got the full pension, but I knew of too many people who had done that and then promptly dropped dead of a heart attack or stroke. And I’d had enough. I wanted more time to write. The cuts to humanities funding and the increasing bureaucratisation of the university meant university teaching was no longer an enjoyable existence. When I entered the system, it worked on trust. You were given your classes and you went ahead and taught them. But by the end of my time there, you had to present course proposals and detailed week by week programmes and lists of outcomes: all nonsensical. Now, I am told, a manager sits in on your classes and reports back to the head of department. When I began there were three terms and three vacations: you used the vacations for your research. Sabbatical leave was automatic: you took six months every three years or a year every six years, and did your research. Now with continual assessment, a semester system, and meetings all through the semester breaks, there is very little time in which to research or write. Now you have to apply for research council funding and get peer reviewed on a project, submitting a detailed description of the project before you have even begun it. Anything challenging or original is unlikely to get approval, in my observations. And the practice now is that you use the grant to pay for someone else to do your teaching and for research assistants to do your research. This seems to me a disgrace. The point of research is that it should feed back into your teaching – rather than become an excuse for not teaching. Now the teaching is increasingly done by part time tutors, paid by the hour, no benefits, no vacation pay. In some subjects students may never encounter a tenured member of staff in their whole degree programme. What the university now wants is people bringing in large research grants. Publication is no longer seen as important. The department I used to work in issues a regular bulletin: but it no longer lists staff members’ publications in it, only grants received. So all in all, I felt the university had lost its way, and I got out. Taking early retirement is the one thing in my life about which I have no regrets.

Not that I am claiming the university was ever a perfect institution. Some of its seedier and more disgraceful aspects provided me with material for Academia Nuts. But they did provide a lot of fun, not part of the current job description.

I was lucky that I began writing Wild Bleak Bohemia when I did, before the university library was ruined. The University of Sydney had the largest university library in Australia. In the southern hemisphere for that matter. Unlike the state libraries, it allowed open access to the stacks. This was a rare, almost unique facility. I had worked in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the old British Museum library in London with their splendid resources. But there was no way you could get into their stacks. You had to order books from the catalogue, and then sit and wait till they arrived. Could be a couple of hours or more. But time was not the only issue. The marvellous feature of Fisher Library at Sydney University was that you could browse the stack shelves. This way you came across books that you had never heard of, books that had been missed in the bibliographies. Your eye would be attracted to something on an adjacent shelf and taking it down you would find it was relevant for your researches. Every researcher can tell you of the importance of these random discoveries, of serendipity. And so I was able to fossick around the stacks and assemble the materials I needed and those other materials I hadn’t known I needed.

Now, in an appalling and philistine move, the University of Sydney library has purged all those books from its shelves that had not been borrowed in the last five years, together with massive runs of journals, and put them in deposit somewhere miles away. Taxpayers’ funds are wasted in paying for a privatised storage facility. And you have to order the book, wait for it to be found and trucked back to the campus.  It is not a matter of an hour or two, but of days before they arrive. If they do. Some have been lost or sold or pulped. The antiquarian journal Notes and Queries, to which Clarke contributed, has vanished altogether, the complete run of it from its inception in 1849.

 

DR:  Where do you think small press publishing (both electronic and in print) is going today? How is it affected or effected by net surveillance, for instance? I wonder if a gifted working-class person in the US today would even feel safe ‘dropping out’ for awhile to be an artist, and if they did, if they’d wind up afoul of the law before being able to publish.

MW:  Writing remains the one art form readily available to someone from an unprivileged background. All you need is a pen and paper. Whereas to be a musician or a movie maker or a visual artist, you usually need a lot of money for instruments and equipment and materials, without which you can’t produce much.

The wisest thing to do is get a day job. If you are not dependent on writing for an income, then you can afford to write what you believe and what you enjoy writing. To shape your work for the market is to enter a world of compromise and self-censorship. You need to ask yourself, is that what you want. As for getting published, it’s always been difficult. Persistence is essential. If someone rejects something, don’t brood unhappily, just send it off somewhere else. And keep sending it off until it gets accepted. The  novelist Richard Stern once passed on some advice to me that Saul Bellow, his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago, had given him. Basically it came to this. If someone invites you to contribute a literary piece somewhere, contribute. Don’t agonise about trying to get published in places you can’t get published in, but take what is offering. You can waste a lot of energy and time and calm of mind in trying to get into whatever publication is modish at the moment. Well, yes, certainly it is worth trying to publish in the famous magazines and with the famous publishers, though generally by the time they have become famous they have lost the flare that gave them their reputation. But if someone invites you to write for them, don’t turn down the invitation on the grounds that I can do better, this piece deserves a better home. It is all too easy to end up homeless that way.

And if you still can’t get published easily, it’s not hard to set up your own press or your own magazine. Digital printing, print on demand, and e-books are all comparatively inexpensive ways of publishing. The potential is there.

As for surveillance, all societies are into it and always have been. So are writers. Remember Christopher Isherwood’s line ‘I am a camera.’ So the writer needs to know about surveillance and counter surveillance, how to fly beneath the radar or sit high above the satellites. The thing to remember is Jack Kerouac’s dictum: ‘A writer should observe, not be observed.’ Don’t draw attention to yourself, just write. Keep off social media. Avoid the cult of celebrity. The media needs celebrities in order to bring them down and so create another story, so why get into that game? There was a lot to be said for writers publishing anonymously, or under pseudonyms. Clarke, Gordon and Kendall all did that at various times.

 

DR: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.   I have just one more question.  In your memoir, you have a younger Bohemian say that “publishing is subterfuge.” How did you reconcile needing time and anonymity to write with your own desire to promote good writing?  Or should I just leave the open question for our readers?

MW: I think we managed to get a lot done in those years because there was a sense of community.  We saw ourselves as writers working together.  And the process of editing magazines and organizing readings and publishing was all part of our social interaction — it was like one big on-going party and the excitement and enthusiasm carried us along.  Of course, over the years we ended up going our separate ways as generally happens.  But at the time it was great.

 

 

References:

Don Graham, Michael Wilding and the Fiction of Instant Experience: Stories, Novels and Memoirs, 1963-2012, Teneo Press, Amherst, New York, 2013

 

Laurie Hergenhan, ‘Literary New Chums: Michael Wilding and Marcus Clarke,’ in Running Wild: Essays, Fictions and Memoirs Presented to Michael Wilding, ed. David Brooks and Brian Kiernan, Sydney Studies in Society and Culture, 22, Sydney Association for Studies in Society & Culture , Sydney; Manohar, New Delhi, 2004,  223-232

 

Michael Wilding, Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall, a Documentary, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2013

Michael Wilding, edited with Laurie Hergenhan and Ken Stewart, Cyril Hopkins’ Marcus Clarke, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009

 

Michael Wilding, Wild & Woolley: a Publishing Memoir, Giramondo, Sydney, 2011

 

Michael Wilding, ‘Adam Lindsay Gordon in England: The Legend of the Steeplechase’, Southerly, 25, 1965, 99-107

 

Michael Wilding, ‘Marcus Clarke’s Essential Recycling’, Quadrant, 55, 11, November 2011, 36-42

Michael Wilding’s first collection of stories, Aspects of the Dying Process  appeared in 1972; his latest novel, the private-eye mystery Asian Dawn appeared in 2013, the most recent of the series that includes National Treasure, The Prisoner of Mount Warning and The Magic of It. His novels include Living Together, The Short Story Embassy, Pacific Highway, the autobiographical Wildest Dreams and Wild Amazement, the campus novel Academia Nuts and its sequel Superfluous Men. Non-fiction includes Political Fictions, Social Visions, Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution, Studies in Classic Australian Fiction, and the recent documentary work, WIld, Bleak Bohemia.
He was founding co-editor of the magazine Tabloid Story and the publishing houses Wild & Woolley, Paperbark Press and Press On. He taught at the University of Birmingham (UK), the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Sydney, where he is now emeritus professor. He is a former Cosmopolitan Bachelor of the Month, Chair of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre and Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Most recently, he’s been an outspoken critic of the continuing decimation of university libraries, 
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