Monday, March 26, 2012

The sound of no hands clapping

Richard Flanagan's non-fiction

Nobody would deny that Richard Flanagan is a passionate writer. His new collection of non-fictional prose is full of fire and commitment, all right. But whether Flanagan has the talent to convert passion into literature is the question about his work that won’t go away. Consider a typically cantankerous sentence from the current book. Responding to critics who believe that Australian novelists should “write more about money”, Flanagan says this: “So much offensive idiocy and prescriptive stupidity has not been heard since the days the lecterns of Eastern Europe grew greasy with the nonsense of cultural commissars insisting on how only social realism adequately described socialist reality.”

Look at what passion does to Flanagan’s prose. His language overheats, but it refuses to get especially inventive or evocative. (By what process might one expect “nonsense” to deposit grease on a lectern?) Flanagan’s unfortunate lack of creative resources (wit, irony, pictorial imagination) means that his strong feelings have nowhere to go, except into the making of a crude overstatement that can only alienate an intelligent reader. To suggest that the plight of the contemporary Australian novelist is in any way comparable to the woes of a Soviet-era writer in Eastern Europe is absurd, if not obscene. Indeed, the comparison is so inept that Flanagan destroys his own case: he accidentally reminds you that Australian novelists, when you look at their situation historically, don’t really have much to complain about at all. Thus Flanagan displays his negative gift for rhetoric. When he cranks up his prose to convince you of something, he has an uncanny ability to make you sympathise with the opposite view, even if you didn’t before ... [read more]