Political Reality 101

Political Reality 101

Given my status as an internationally recognised commentator on all political and cultural phenomena, some of my friends and colleagues have asked for my opinion on why people think it’s okay to say anything they like on the internet (and even in real life!), irrespective of who it might marginalise or harm. And what is the government doing about it?

*draws deep breath*

Okay, obviously this comes up in the context of the president’s quite breathtaking behaviour since losing the election, especially the incitement to riot and sedition at the Capitol on 6 January.

More profoundly, it’s all about the fact that large numbers of people seem to genuinely believe things that other people find laughable, ridiculous or even dangerous.

How can people within the same communities be so divided in their genuinely held and deepest beliefs? As I’ve said elsewhere, if a community loses sight of its most fundamental values or becomes polarised on those values, it is no longer united. It is no longer a viable community because it no longer shares a common narrative.

Has this happened to America? And if so, how? Could it happen here?

At the risk of sounding glib (NEVER, I hear you cry!) I blame the internet. The so-called democratisation of publishing and information, while giving everyone a voice, has seen the simultaneous erosion of the traditional media’s influence. We are now awash in an ocean of didactic opinion where fact-checking, objectivity and other journalistic standards have all but vanished as the traditional media (those parts of it that remain) devolves to stay relevant to an ever more divided audience.

So what divides the audience?

There has long been an understanding (and even acceptance) of “left” and “right” politics within a polity. Historically, the right are understood to represent the vested interests who want things to stay as they are, and the left are those who want change so that they can have a greater say in the ordering of society and the distribution of its resources.

But what we see today goes way beyond simple left and right. The community is now fractured into thousands of micro-movements on both traditional sides of politics (macro-left and macro-right), most of them just as antagonistic to their fellow micro-movements as they are to the opposing macro.

And of course, these micro-movements were forged on the internet where communities of opinion form and mutate constantly. In the absence of a trusted, objective news source, the communities of opinion become sources of information which underpin and enable the micro-movements.

They effectively become echo-chambers in which people only ever hear what they already think with ever more extreme versions of their “reality” given precedence and prominence by the social media algorithms. Eventually they become radicalised by the “self-evident truth” of their community and have only contempt for others.

But where does the rage come from?

It’s one thing to have a radically polarised or even twisted view of society, but quite another to feel justified in breaking the law or fomenting violence in furtherance of that view. We’ve all seen footage from America in recent times where the president’s supporters have been whipped into a fury on his behalf, with some of them calling for civil war.

You cannot reason with these people. They only hear what they want or expect to hear and any attempt to convince them they are not wholly correct in any aspect of their world-view inspires anger. It’s as though they’ve been desocialised to the point they regard anyone with different views as antagonistic “others” – unbelievers who must be shunned or even exterminated. That’s the next step for those calling for civil war.

Clearly, this has enormous implications for elections. People who genuinely believe that the forces of darkness have stolen control of their country will feel justified in taking non-electoral action to take it back. Especially when they continue to get their news and information only from the increasingly militant echo-chamber of choice, calling for a perverse patriotism.

So how do we fix this problem?

Much as I deplore the recent actions of the president, I feel it would be a big mistake to continue with a second impeachment. He deserves to be impeached, and I daresay his actions could even be deemed seditious and criminal, but now is a time for healing and that process will be massively compromised by inflaming the grievances and passions of his most radical supporters.

Beyond that, there needs to be an objective source of truth that people can trust to inform their opinions. No doubt there will always be micro-movement echo-chambers (where there’s a web there’s a way), but their influence needs to be countered to remind people of what unites them and shine a light into the alternative realities which take shape in the cyber-dark.

Turning our attention then to Australia, while our community is not yet so divided as America, the micro-movements are clearly at work – not least in the media, such as it is. The Australian media, certainly the Murdoch side of it, has lost any pretense at objectivity and has become itself an echo-chamber of opinion rather than fact. Even their cartoonist, Warren, is a blatant propagandist rather than socio-political commentator in the fine Australian tradition. Am I right Dan Andrews?

As for that fine Australian tradition, I grew up in a political landscape that certainly had its left and right divisions, but they weren’t really that far apart. Liberal and Labor were more like a couple of football teams that people barracked for every few years and then forgot about. Losers might be annoyed on election night but they’d get up next morning and nothing had really changed. I used to be amused by that but now I see we were utterly blessed to live through such a time.

I suspect the major parties are a little further apart now – driven by the micro-movements infiltrating and polarising their platforms. I can see a time when both parties will become irrelevant because they do not embrace the realities of their radical infiltrators and the media (and social media) are already howling for harder lines. Newer, harder parties (just like the Nazis in 1930s Germany) will appeal to those with harder opinions and the majors will have to evolve or wither away.

To that end, I can see the stirrings of evolution in the current government – especially as it takes on the media. The Liberal Party has emasculated and decimated the ABC to limit its capacity to report objectively because objectivity does not square with the message the apparatchiks controlling party thinking wish to convey. They even justify their actions by accusing the ABC of an unbalanced “lefty” approach to reporting. It is not taking a leftist approach to reporting simply because you refuse to join the government’s echo-chamber. Facts are facts and do not change at a demagogue’s whim.

As O’Brien said to Winston in Room 101: “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. But I tell you Winston that reality is not external. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”

It’s coming.

My Reality, Right or Wrong

The president of the United States today, aided and abetted by his lawyer Rudi Giulliani, incited the population to attempt a coup.

Nothing would surprise me anymore when it comes to the president himself. What more would we expect from such a deluded, narcissistic sociopath?

What truly amazes me is the vast number of people prepared to believe his baseless claims, and to take part in mass sedition on the president’s behalf.

Do none of these people have any concept of reality?

Clearly they do not. The electoral process has taken its course and every legal appeal attempted by the president’s apparatchiks has been struck down and (frequently) criticised by judges for being vexatious and unsupported by any kind of evidence.

Could all of the judges be wrong? (As the president claims.)

Do his supporters actually read the reports? Any of them?

From afar, it looks to me as though a large part of America no longer believes anyone or anything that does not come from their own political echo chamber. If they are not hearing what they already believe, they get angry and ignore – or even attack – the source of that irritating narrative.

This is absolutely a result of the downfall of the traditional media. The (so-called) democratisation of publishing and information on the internet has seen the rise of countless alternative news sources plus the emasculation of journalistic standards.

It is definitely a good thing that everyone can have a voice, but it is a very bad thing that so many voices are dedicated to pushing barrows supporting narrow self-serving agendas. And many of these self-serving, anonymous voices are spruiking news, platforms and ideas which are designed solely to manipulate – for financial or political gain.

Some of the most respected news sources in the world are no longer reporting the facts in any kind of objective manner. They have abandoned editorial integrity and jumped on the same bandwagon as the loony left, the far religious right, the Instagram influencers, the anti-vaxxers and all the other scumbag scammers.

The truth doesn’t matter. It’s only click-volume that counts.

So what will the ex-president do next?

This is the reality TV star who treated America as his own show and is trying to change the rules at the death to stay relevant.

My bet is that he will do two things. He will announce his candidature for the 2024 election.

And when other Republicans line up to describe his presidency as the worst (and most divisive since Lincoln) and shuffle into place to push their own next candidacy, the president will quit the party and start his own party – called (something like) the American Patriot Party.

A very large proportion of the seventy million people who voted for him will switch their allegiance to the new party, which will hamstring the Republicans for years and might even see their demise in favour of the new party which will be all about fomenting belief in fake reality.

To that end, the president will probably set up his own media empire, rivalling Fox, whose reporters will perceive every issue while draped in the flag and carrying a cross. Many tens of millions will believe them, no matter what they say, because this is the politics of allegiance: my party, right or wrong.

My reality, right or wrong.

Meanwhile, in his waning weeks, the president continues to antagonise China and Iran in a period where no major policy decisions should ever be made – especially regarding aggressive foreign policy. This is nothing short of sabre rattling in the hope both of cruelling Biden’s pitch or even inciting enough of a national emergency to warrant (an attempted) declaration of martial law.

Is there absolutely nothing? No act so low and unprincipled it is beyond him?

As Blackthorne said to Toranaga in James Clavell’s magnificent Shogun: “There are no mitigating circumstances for rebellion…unless you win.”

The Secret World: Literature Through the Prism of Sex

Shortly after my novel Straight Jacket was published, a work colleague asked me: “Why, during the restaurant scene, did you twice use the word masticate?”

We masticated for a moment in reflective silence.

“Why do you think?” I replied, and she blushed.

“That’s right,” I said. “It was a sexually charged scene working on several levels…hence the pun, which you clearly picked up on.”

This is not a standard lunchtime conversation for two lawyers, but it enabled me to wax lyrical about the deeper textures of my work, and I always love doing that. However, I’m not the only writer who uses sex as a device for both storytelling and plot.

The great American novelist, John Barth, in his masterpiece Chimera said: “writing and reading, or telling and listening are literally ways of making love. There is a bond between teller and told that is by its nature erotic. Its success depends upon the reader’s consent and co-operation which can be withheld or withdrawn at any time…and the author’s ability to arouse, sustain, satisfy and even impregnate with ideas and images.”

When you are writing, you are inviting the reader into a relationship. You must woo them, tease them, excite them, fulfil them and leave them gasping for more, and if actual sex is involved it must be genuinely woven into the fabric of the story. Not just tacked on like a grubby afterthought.

These are articles of faith for me when it comes to the expression of my art. I am so aware that a reader (whether purchaser or borrower) could put the book down at any moment and never pick it up again. It is therefore my duty to keep them turning the pages and, like any ardent lover, I’m going hammer and tongs to warm them up and then keep them interested – for as long as it takes.

But it goes much deeper than just the mechanics of storytelling. My stories are never about sex (that’s erotica) but they tend to be told partly through the prism of sex. By which I mean both the storytelling style and much of the ambience. But what is the point of doing that?

Freud could have told you.

Many regard Freud’s work to be somewhat debunked these days but I would argue there’s a bit that makes sense, especially his ideas regarding the id, the ego, the unconscious and drive theory – ie, that the human mind has two innate compulsions: the aggressive drive and the sex drive. These are necessary for the protection of the individual and the perpetuation of the species, and are seated within the oldest part of the brain – the reptilian complex – to help navigate the perils of life in a state of nature.

These are compulsions that are so deeply a part of us they are impossible to turn off. Sure, they can be restrained by socialisation, but that restraint is only ever provisional. The urges remain – the evil seduction of the savage within – to break free of society’s conventions.

So what does that mean for literature? Clearly it is the sex drive that we’re dealing with today because, in literature (as in real life), sex compels people to do things or make choices which have serious repercussions. In other words: sex drives the plot. Or part of it.

For example, my historical novel The Fighting Man is mainly a reinterpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry, but the main plot device driving the actions of the fictional characters (Brand and Valla) is his promise to her, to lie with no other woman. This promise becomes a source of agony and frustration for Brand, not least because of the perils and temptations I throw in his path for my own evil amusement. It certainly keeps the pages turning.

Straight Jacket, an offbeat crime novel about a lawyer with an unusually powerful sense of justice, takes the idea much further. Most of the main characters are hunting (or eluding) relationships and that desire drives their actions and colours their world.

Morgen, for example, is a first person narrator who is not subject to the usual conventions and blind spots. He sees things that others might “see without seeing”: eg lost panties in the gutter or public toilet graffiti and speculates on the stories behind them. This can be uncomfortable reading for people who do not see as Morgen does, and forces the reader to squint through Morgen’s disturbingly intimate lens.

What they are seeing is the Secret World.

We all have a Secret World – a place rarely acknowledged with the conscious mind, but our deepest truths can be found there. Aspects of our nature – denied or hidden in waking life – fantasies and unspoken desires are permitted. It is a place with its own symbology – a personal myth system imbued with a language understood only by ourselves. Numbers and patterns take on especial significance which, in some cases, can intrude into normal reality.

Morgen is such a case. The veil between the Secret World and real life is so thin that he moves between them effortlessly, which makes him attractive to those who are capable of making a similar transition (including readers). Clare, the detective with whom he has an affair, is challenged by Morgen to meet him on equal terms, which makes for some powerful dialogue. One of my favourite exchanges (and the one most quoted in reviews) goes:

‘I know a great deal about you,’ she said … ‘you like expensive wine and high-grade coke…you dress impeccably, drive a Jag and are completely devoid of morals.’

‘Not completely.’

‘Let’s look at it objectively, shall we? You walk into an old schoolmate’s house…insult him, take drugs and screw his wife in the marital bedroom while he’s playing outside with the children…’

‘And you find that attractive, do you?’

‘I wouldn’t have thought so…but here we are.’


In that scene (and in others) the conversation itself is analogous to lovemaking – thrust and counter-thrust – words both ambient and redolent of sex. They are making love with words and only as the conversation reaches its climax is sex actually mentioned.

I’ve written elsewhere about the mechanics of writing sex scenes and the most important rule is this: the reader must desperately want the characters to do it. If the reader becomes invested in the characters – even cares about the characters – the reader will have hopes and expectations for them, which must be fulfilled.

But not straight away. Like any teasing lover, a writer can set up false alarms so that by the time the deed is finally done, the reader is gagging for it. In Mr Cleansheets, the reader wants Eric and Doreen to get it on from the moment they meet, but it takes a long time (many pages) to happen after a number of misunderstandings and missed chances. (As the Karma Sutra says, the best aphrodisiac is abstinence.)

It is also possible to write a sex scene where no sex at all is described. Romance writers have long been aware of this – cutting away from the rising action to describe the glowing embers of the log fire, for example. But it can also be done just through setting up the expectation and desire in the mind of the reader, establishing the opportunity and setting, and choosing words and rhythms that engage the readers’ sensibilities.

That’s the great secret. Readers always bring their own erotic past to any story and, if your characters and action can dip into that well, their own memories and fantasies will flood forth to fill the gaps left in your narrative. This is powerful stuff if you get it right.

But why do it at all?

All writers (good ones, at any rate) have a prism through which they perceive the human condition. My work, on some level, is always an exploration of humanity and we are never so human – so open and vulnerable – as when baring our souls and skins though lovemaking; its preludes and consequences. This is also the time when we come closest to our own Secret World, sensing its shadows and symbols on the edge of our intimate explorations.

And there must be consequences.

Maybe not so much in the modern Tinder world where liaisons can be nasty, brutish and short, but in literature there must be sequelae, especially where two main characters are put together. The forming of a relationship must be a plot turning point, sending the story in a new direction.

In my latest novel, Welcome to Ord City, the main character is confronted with an exceedingly unfriendly woman on the edge of the rising action. After a strange series of events and a long dinner conversation, the mutual attraction comes (unexpectedly, but not unreasonably) to the fore and the two join forces, which is critical to the resolution of the plot.

Sex is used for a variety of purposes in Ord City, including humour. One of my favourite moments occurs when an aggressive and violent young man with very ignorant views thinks he is making a profound political statement, only to have the tables turned in a surprising (and amusing) way which again has important plot consequences. Some may find this scene a tad distasteful, but that’s another part of the writer’s duty – to go unflinching where the characters lead and to portray elements of life that may be beyond the experience of most readers.

What is really happening here, of course, is that the reader is brushing up hard against the characters’ Secret Worlds and even being confronted with their own. I believe it’s the reason my literature is so enjoyed by some, but others (for whom the Secret World is locked away safely) will find it challenging.

I’m not writing for them. I write for the people who have some glimmering of the Secret World and are open to exploring it, if only vicariously through my characters. We are endlessly fascinated by other people and what they get up to in private. Reading about characters you like (or hate) in their most private moments is a kind of acceptable voyeurism. One of my own most memorable scenes is when Blacksnake Fowler (Straight Jacket) overhears the woman he loves having sex with someone else, and his love instantly turns to hate. It’s a powerful moment, as he physically enters the Secret World, but the reader is hovering invisibly at his shoulder and is all but complicit in his actions.

I want the reader to feel his shame, revulsion and guilt, but I know also they’ll be titillated and drawn ever deeper into the underlying textures of the novel where the greatest secrets are revealed.

Sex opens the doors to our deepest, darkest selves and that’s why I use it in my work.


The Cult of Trump

I don’t get it.

I do not get the way so many Americans (and not just Americans) bow down before the altar of Donald Trump.

And it’s not just an altar. It’s an entire belief system with Donald himself as high priest of his own self-referential religion.

Belief is the key here. People believe what he says, despite:

• The many ways his concept of reality has been questioned;
• His manipulation of culture war “truths”;
• His admiration for totalitarian monsters;
• The many ways his integrity has been compromised (especially regarding his taxes, Covid and Russia);
• His habit of perceiving every issue through the way it will affect him personally rather than how it will affect the country;
• His claim of the religious and moral high ground despite the appalling reality of his own amoral and pussy-grabbing personal history;
• The total lack of evidence for his incredible and outrageous claims regarding the electoral system.

The main danger, of course, is that because so many do believe him, in a country awash with guns, he could rouse people to undertake actions that would seriously undermine the Republic.

Donald Trump has never been more dangerous than he is right now.

His old habit of claiming “fake news” for every report he doesn’t like is inspiring him to go all in. He is now undermining the electoral process and implicitly calling his base to action – to not allow a fraud to be perpetrated upon the American people.

Will any of them ask to see the evidence for this very serious claim?

Because it does need evidence. All he’s said so far (amid the flying saliva) is that postal votes shouldn’t be regarded as legal and that no votes should be counted after election day.

Well, sorry Donald, but you went into this election knowing that postal votes were allowed, that they have always been counted (sometimes long) after election day, and that they traditionally favour Democrats.

The reason for this last point is that the American system (despite asserting as self-evident that all men are created equal) has always made it hard for the little guy to vote. Voting is non-compulsory, happens on a Tuesday (when working folks often can’t attend in person) and in counties all over America there might be only one ballot centre, obliging people to travel long distances and then queue up for hours. Can you imagine the outcry in Australia if any government tried to introduce a system like that?

It’s a system deliberately contrived to favour the votes of a particular class and the only defence the rest have is the postal system, which has been around a lot longer than Donald Trump. But as usual, as soon as something doesn’t suit him, he wants it changed or declared illegal.

To this point there is no evidence – not a scrap – of any wrong-doing by voters or the many people working in intolerable conditions to maintain the integrity of their democracy while the legions of Trumpian darkness chant outside and brandish legal weapons.

This is where Trump has dragged America, to the brink of (I hesitate to even say it) Civil Disruption because his base are so manipulated and enraged by the culture wars they have no concept of objective reality. (And it’s not just Americans with this problem – it’s certainly happening here in Australia.)

So what can we do about this?

There’s no pleasure here in smiling to ourselves because we can see through the trickster’s ploy while the yokels gape. And it’s not just Trump who is perpetrating (or at least riding on the coat tails of) a mass delusion. All of us have been deluded, and it’s time we took back control. We need a means of seeing reality objectively so debate can happen around a mutually accepted set of facts. If we can’t at least agree on the facts then there’s no hope for debate, and other measures will be found for the settling of grievances.

I truly shudder to think where America is going in coming months. The best thing Biden can do, if he is declared the winner, is to fully support all calls for recounts (under properly controlled conditions). That might just placate some of Trump’s base and will at least seem presidential.

That’s what America needs – someone who can remind Americans what unites them. For theirs is a truly great democracy with an amazing history, culture and heritage. Their revolution made an enormous contribution to the freedoms and liberties enjoyed across the entire Western World. Even Dubya, a president deplored by so many, had a sense of the dignity of the office of president amid such rich historical narrative.

Not Trump, his own dignity evaporated in a storm of petulant tweets and narcissistic spin-speeches designed to divide the country when it most needs healing.

If he maintains his confected outrage then there’s a shit-storm coming, and not every shit-storm can be contained in a diaper.


Clive Palmer: A Lance Corporal in the Culture Wars

Why is it that politicians now think it is okay to lie?

Not all of them, but plenty. It’s like the Trump example of: “say what you like and damn the consequences”, has passed into the political playbook as an acceptable electoral technique.

Clive Palmer, after wrecking the Labor Party’s chances in the last federal election with a campaign of misinformation, has now gone a big step further with blatant, calculated bullshit.

The Labor Party in Queensland has NEVER raised the possibility of death duties (since 1914, at least). In fact, Queensland was the first state to get rid of them back in the 70s. Queensland reintroducing death duties would be like the Yankee states reintroducing slavery. It aint gonna happen, and only an idiot would even contemplate it in a state where so many southerners move to retire.

That didn’t stop Clive from insisting it’s part of Labor’s secret agenda with no evidence of any kind. When confronted with this question, his young wife (herself a candidate) said: “Surely it’s up to Labor to prove they’re not introducing such a policy.”

Sorry, but that’s not how it works in this country. The onus of proof is always on the accuser / plaintiff, and if it wasn’t we’d have anarchy.

This kind of behaviour would certainly attract legal sanction in the private or commercial world – Palmer would have his arse handed to him in a defamation court, so why isn’t it proscribed in the political world?

On the one hand, this is a powerful reason for introducing a Federal Anti-corruption Commission. Is lying for political advantage corruption? I would say definitely yes.

On the other hand, it reflects a deeper problem. The culture wars are fatally dividing us.

So what are the culture wars?

To give a very simplistic answer, the culture wars are the fight for hearts and minds in the current fight between left and right.

There has always been a fight between left and right. The right, traditionally, are those who want things to stay the way they are. They have a vested interest in the status quo and (believe they) will be worse off if things change.

The left, traditionally, are those who want things to change. This sometimes means a slightly different allocation of resources, but always means a difference in the way political power is shared.

Over the centuries we’ve seen this tension manifest in wars and revolutions, but also in polite debate, given the milieu.

Polite debate has mostly been the norm over the last century (in the Western World, at any rate) but the debate is getting less polite in these 24/7 post truth, social media times. Indeed, it’s no longer even a debate.

A debate necessitates an interchange of ideas and, in the political context, usually means some form of compromise between the vested interests and the emerging powers.

No longer.

The culture wars now mean that people have become so polarised by fake news, misinformation, manipulation and demonisation of alternative views that they no longer have any idea what objective truth is, and can no longer even tolerate the expression of alternative views.

The left and right (to the extent that still has meaning) in America won’t even engage with each other now, so when intellectual debate is no longer possible to settle disagreements, violence becomes the only option.

Trump is playing this card for all it’s worth in the current election, which is horrific enough for Americans fearing Trump’s reaction in a narrow loss, but also has implications for those of us living in First World countries within the American sphere of influence.

The fact we have politicians in Australia trying to invoke the same strategies is deeply disappointing.

Australians have always believed themselves better than the duped and the foolish in other countries. We wouldn’t fall for the obvious crap that entangles those foreign benighted fools.

So why are Queenslanders listening to Clive Palmer?

This is a man who has played the Blue Collar political card in the past while ripping off his own workers and has offered no vision for Australia or Queensland except to try and keep Labor out of power to enhance his own planet fucking industrial plans.

And he’s willing to lie to make that happen.

The really sad thing is that many will believe him.

Do We Still Get Satire?

Someone (an American) said to me, the other day, that Americans no longer perceived or understood satire. He asked whether it was the same in Australia and I had to pause…

Do we?

My god do I even get satire?

I bloody well hope so because I’ve just published a satirical novel and have another coming out next year!

So what exactly is satire?

My own definition is that satire holds a mirror up to society, often by portraying an issue to the point of extreme absurdity (thus causing the reader to reflect upon that targeted issue in real life). Two of the earliest novels (Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote) are satirical – attacking aspects of their societies that didn’t make sense to the authors – Cervantes through the portrayal of a noble buffoon tilting at windmills, and Swift through the portrayal of Gulliver (an educated “everyman”) as a giant, and then as a tiny chap among the Brobdingnagians (and others) – skewering the pointlessness of religious and political distinctions and rivalries as he went.

Is satire funny?

Sometimes, but it’s usually a wry style of humour – raising an eyebrow or half a smile when the reader perceives the target. Catch 22 is one of the more famous modern(ish) satires – pointing out the absurdity of war by portraying those who wage it as ridiculous. There are many laugh-out-loud moments in Catch 22 – I frequently quote the bit where Yossarian is walking the eerie streets of Rome at night and sees a sign saying: “Tony’s Restaurant, fine food and drink. Keep Out.”

Compare that with a book published just a few years earlier and also satirising war. Lord of the Flies is not funny at all – it’s a harrowing book, on one level about the cruelty of children when allowed to lose their socialisation on a desert island. But on a deeper level, the book (published at the height of the Cold War) is arguably about the sovereignty of nations who can’t get along. (The boys are being evacuated from a war zone as the story opens.)

To get back to my original question – do people get satire anymore? When was the last truly famous satire? The Truman Show maybe? Dexter? I’m wracking my brains to think of anything since, and if people aren’t presented with satire they will never learn to recognise (or appreciate) it.

I was recently involved in an online conversation about Lord of the Flies and all people could talk about was the cruelty. They didn’t like the book because they didn’t believe children would really behave like that.

I was pulling my figurative hair out because the cruelty is not the point! The cruelty is just a vehicle for the message – that people can lose their socialisation when no longer compelled by a higher authority to behave. But is that all the book is saying?

This has always been the fundamental issue with international law. There is no higher sovereign entity to compel good behaviour so nations must negotiate their own (inevitably) unequal relationships, and when those negotiations fail, war is often the result. I always saw the island as representative of the earth with Ralph and Jack as superpowers of waxing and waning power as the others cluster about their leadership. Piggy stands for the last vestiges of civilised behaviour and decency, hence the call to arms: Kill the Pig!

Of course the cruelty continues all the time. Empire building, ganging up and exploitation of the weak is cruel. It’s happened forever and the First World has tended to be the main beneficiary over the centuries. That’s exactly why we see China behaving so assertively these days. They’ve been treated very badly by the West in the past (Opium Wars, anyone?) and they’re not going to let it happen again.

Anyway, back to my point. The people taking part in that Flies debate did not get the satire. Could it be that they were too young to remember the Cold War? Or is it more that we have lost our ability to perceive subtext in literature – that everything is taken at face value and that’s it.

I suspect the latter, and if so, what does that say about our community if we no longer get satire?

It means a society that is no longer capable of seeing its own flaws – that cannot laugh at itself – that does not get the joke – that takes itself far too seriously.

Is that what we’ve become?

In these days of heightened sensitivity over every fucking issue under the sun, I’d say that’s exactly what has happened. Of course, some people will say that as an educated, white, middle aged, First World male, I’m part of the problem. My lamenting the death of satire is really just me bemoaning my incremental loss of relevance and power.

Probably.

Everyone is reclaiming their own personal sovereignty, which is fine, but it’s happening at the expense of satire, subtlety, subtext and (some would say) sanity. It feels like there’s a massive correction happening across the world both within and beyond countries, cultures and subcultures. This inevitably means the disruption of existing arrangements and privileges – which more often than not is a good thing, but we’ve seen before how revolutions tend to breed new bosses – same as the old bosses.

Ironically, it was the identification and skewering of inequality and injustice that satire was invented to achieve. So if satire is dead, maybe we just don’t need it anymore, because the inequality and injustice has become way too obvious.

That has to be a good thing (that we can see the injustice and do something about it), but it won’t help me sell my satirical books…

When Does Sex Become Sexual Assault?

This is a really difficult topic to write about.

That doesn’t mean it should not be written about. It’s just that attitudes (and experience) are so diverse that anyone venturing an opinion is very likely to be hated by at least a subset of readers, no matter how sensitive and tasteful they try to be.

So why am I even dipping a toe into this murky and dangerous pond?

Because this morning an American reviewer of my new book Welcome to Ord City, after giving it a massive thumbs up, left this postscript:

A trigger warning for some folks, there is sex in this book and it is not always consensual – this bit seems to be glossed over [by] the characters but these acts would be considered sexual assault.

I was stunned.

Then I was defensive.

Then I was just plain horrified. So many beta readers and editors have read the book and not one of them suggested that some people might find any of the (handful of fairly mild) sex scenes problematic.

I then calmed down a little and mentally reviewed the various scenes – trying to get some insight into what I’d done. I even engaged my legal brain and considered the defining elements of sexual assault under Australian law.

They more or less boil down to this: sex becomes sexual assault when one party becomes aware that the other party is not (or no longer) consenting, but continues anyway.

I can absolutely guarantee, hand on heart, that this never happens in Ord City. I could go through each scene and give a careful analysis as to why whatever happens is not non-consensual but that would give too much away. (My sex scenes always have an impact on the plot – see previous post: How to Write an Excellent Bonking Scene.)

Yes, there are a couple of complex, ambiguous moments, but that’s what makes them interesting. Now I am agonising over the possibility that some people might think I’ve put non-consensual sex into a book – which I would never do (unless there were to be very severe consequences).

I guess this, to some extent, comes down to different laws and cultural sensitivities. Until today, the book had only been read by Australians and no-one had the slightest issue with it. But as we speak, Ord City is being read by reviewers all over the world and maybe some of them will think I’ve sailed too close to the line.

There’s nothing I can do now. The ebook’s out and the paperback will hit the shelves next week. I can’t change it, but neither do I want to change it. I know there’s no non-consenting sex in the book but once a book is out there an author loses control. The audience make what they will of it and that’s it. (In fact, I contacted the reviewer and thanked her for her very thoughtful review.)

But, there is an edge to my writing, which is why you’ll always find a few one star reviews on goodreads sprinkled through the raving fours and fives. I expect the same again with Welcome to Ord City but I sincerely hope I don’t get called worse than Hitler.

Not again.






The New Deal: An Inter-generational Treaty?

I have an idea to help Australia.

I daresay it would work in other first world countries also but it would definitely work here, and the idea is a very simple one.

All people over 60 should be encouraged to retire.

Strongly encouraged – with major tax and social security incentives.

This will benefit everyone – especially the young.

* * *

I’m now at the age where friends and colleagues are starting to retire (or are at least talking about it).

Those who aren’t ready to retire are mainly concerned that they won’t have enough money. After all, how much is enough? Especially when you can no longer easily get another job if your circumstances change (or live a lot longer than you expected to).

The current situation, of course, is massively complicated by the COVID19 problem. The future is so uncertain that people who were contemplating retirement are putting it off – not least as they have suddenly realised that rental and other investment income is no longer as safe as they thought.

That may seem fair enough, but the hardest impact of older people staying in the workforce is the loss of opportunities for the following generations.

That really needs to change.

An entire generation is in danger of missing out on the sort of careers my generation took for granted. In my day you got a free education and moved seamlessly into a well paid professional job.

No longer. These days, after years of study and ratcheting student debt, graduates face a Darwinian Struggle just to land an unpaid internship. Graduate placements are like hen’s teeth and it’s mainly because people are no longer retiring at 65 as they routinely did in the past. They’re staying on, having accrued massive salaries and other benefits which, quite understandably, they are loath to relinquish.

This keeps the younger people below them marking time in mid-career when they ought to be moving to the senior ranks, and the youngest of all don’t get the early career opportunities that my generation expected as a matter of course.

This has all sorts of implications beyond just the personal. Our entire work/social infrastructure is delayed because people aren’t getting the skills and experience they need when they are best equipped to benefit and grow. That means our entire economy is stunted and less equipped to compete on the world stage.

And it will get worse. If we are not producing the people we need to power our future economy and run our infrastructure, who else will do it?

Are we to become tenants in our own country, having sold out to overseas interests rather than develop our own?

And what becomes of the unused generation?

Increasingly resentful of the baby boomers who stole their careers, they will not be earning enough to pay the tax needed to fund our declining years and will be disinclined to provide the basic services we will need.

We have a powerful incentive to make sure this never happens – the carrot of retirement plus the stick of a dysfunctional community in which a happy retirement will be unlikely except for the super-wealthy. (And how could even they be happy amid so much communal unhappiness?)

So, how do we encourage the over-60s into retirement so that everyone else can move up a rung and the youngest can finally get a foot onto the ladder?

We dispel the fear of retirement by guaranteeing (or at least maximising) retirement income opportunities. The government needs to restore the full value of the superannuation system established by Paul Keating to enable more people to fund their own retirement.

That will certainly help but other tax incentives (not to work beyond 60) should also be on the table.

There should also be a pension for all retired Australians over 60 which is means tested to cut out at about the $60k mark (retirement income).

These measures will be expensive but nowhere near as expensive as wasting a generation which receives more in welfare than it pays in tax. Providing opportunities for the young is a double winner because it increases tax revenue at the same time as decreasing welfare payments.

A triple winner, in fact, because it reduces mental health problems and other dysfunction to create a happier community in which people like me can enjoy retirement…one day. (Ahem)

My comments are most relevant for the corporate/professional world. There will be other sectors of work which will need older people to stay longer (especially in the VET sector) but perhaps there could be other incentives (eg teaching supplements for people happy to train those needed skills).

There are any number of details to work out but the basic principle is nothing less than a treaty between the generations. Instead of hogging the opportunities for ourselves, we should be stepping aside to let the young ones step up.

And in return they will maintain a community in which we can comfortably retire…or transition into full time writing.

Ahem.

 

Fighting Man Press: Into the Unknown

Readers of this blog will be keenly aware that, whenever I’m not shouting my mouth off about everything under the sun, I am otherwise engaged in the most subversive, sad and futile activity known to humankind.

That’s right, I am the lowest form of life – a writer of fiction.

* * *

What drives a person to spend (literally) thousands of hours in lonely rooms, tapping their life away, while the rest of the world continues in its oblivious orbit?

Because that is the reality. One in a thousand writers is commercially published and only one in a thousand of those is successful enough to make their living from it. The odds, therefore, are a million to one against.

Every year it gets harder, but still people keep trying.

Why?

No doubt, there are any number of reasons. For many it is simply a hobby – an artistic pursuit to be enjoyed for its own sake – and that is part of my own motivation. I could no more not write than not breathe. (Ahem)

But when you’ve done it long enough to feel you’re moving up the rungs of the craft ladder, you want some feedback. It gets to the point where you just can’t go on without an audience.

Having an audience means getting published – which in one sense has never been harder. Book stores, distributors and publishers were closing down in droves long before COVID 19 inspired another generation of dystopian, post-apocalyptic scribblers.

Yet, in another sense, it’s never been easier, and that is where I now find myself – about to take a dive into the vast ocean of independent (ie, self) publishing.

* * *

Self publishing – now commonly known as independent publishing – used to have a very bad name, and no-one who wanted to be taken seriously would ever dip a toe into that murky pond.

Because let’s face it, there is a lot of dross out there.

Or is there?

It has certainly been a common perception that most (if not all) indie books are terrible. They were rejected by proper publishers, so they must be terrible, right?

To return to that original statistic – one in a thousand manuscripts gets picked up by commercial trade publishers – does that truly mean that the other 999 were terrible?

There are all sorts of reasons for rejecting manuscripts – the main one being that there is only so much room in any publishing program and most of it is already taken up by contractual commitments to existing authors within the stable.

With most publishers so focused on the bottom line these days – and there being so much pressure on the bottom line from other sources such as book shops wanting more, distributors wanting more, readers wanting to pay less, how much margin is left for new voices trying to break through?

Almost none, which means for those novelists who really are worthy of scratching their mark on the zeitgeist, there is only one possible avenue.

* * *

Having had four books commercially published to significant critical acclaim (two of them making it into the airport bookstores), you’d think it wouldn’t be hard for me to find publishers for my new work.

I can hardly even get them read.

In fact, my next novel – my masterpiece, no less – was accepted by a mid-sized Australian publisher, to my great excitement. They were the biggest publisher I’d had so far and had a good reputation for quality and promoting their authors. Their books win awards! With the profile of the publisher and the quality of the work (as I see it) I thought I’d finally broken through.

Imagine then my devastation when the publisher contacted me to say they were in trouble and were cancelling everything in the pipeline? (And if they’re in trouble, then god help the rest.)

I’m still getting over it.

But that’s when I made the decision to create my own imprint.

It is a bold move and an expensive move, but I am encouraged by the fact that the publishing industry has evolved to the point that independent publishing is no longer a by-word for crap. There are any number of success stories – indeed, Amazon and goodreads are chockers with independent authors who’ve developed enough of a reputation to make a living from writing.

I’d go even further and suggest that – given the super-conservative approach that publishers now take (certainly in Australia) – that the only place to find interesting new voices is in independent publishing. I know there are now armies of readers looking for something genuinely new so am greatly encouraged by that thought.

Welcome to Ord City is way too good to let wither on the vine, so I have to get it out there. No matter how hard…no matter the cost.

To that end, I’ve created my own imprint – Fighting Man Press. Ord City will be the first book published under that imprint but I need your help. I am appealing to anyone who has enjoyed my work in the past to take a look at Welcome to Ord City – and if you enjoy it – really enjoy it – then tell people about it. Review it on Amazon or goodreads. Tell your friends. Tell everyone!

I know I’m asking a lot. This is a grubby appeal of the type I’ve never made before but my new venture will fail unless enough people act as my advocates to push the book hard enough to reach critical mass – to take off under its own power.

Obviously it won’t do that if it’s not good enough in the first place, but I’m betting it is good enough and I’m spending my own money to get it out there in the hope that readers who enjoy my work will want others to discover it also.

Here are three suggested responses to my impassioned plea for your support. Feel free to post any of them onto this page:

• Adrian, I love your books and will do my best to help Welcome to Ord City be successful.
• I am appalled that a writer of your so-called ability would stoop to such grubby depths in search of a lousy dollar.
• I am completely indifferent to everything you do or say.

I just know I’m going to be seeing that third bullet point a lot, but at least that means they’ve read this far!

Don’t Judge a Book…

Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say, and sometimes they’d be right.

The truth is that the publishing industry is obsessed with covers because a person wandering through a bookstore or library must be engaged if your story is to live. You’ve got one chance to grab their attention, and unless that person has come specifically looking for your book, the best way of claiming their attention is through an arresting cover.

So what makes an arresting cover?

There’d be any number of PhDs written on the semiotics of book covers, but fundamentally it needs to be somehow relevant to the story. It needs to – on some level – arouse the sensibilities of the reader. It needs to give the reader (even if only vaguely) some sense of what the book is about.

There is quite a range of possibility, depending on the story and its target market. A subtle psychological drama can get away with something blandly symbolic, whereas any kind of action novel needs to get to the point immediately. If your book is about self-aware, war-mongering robots, you can’t have a cover featuring a woman staring off into bucolic distance – even if the woman is a robot. Your readers will want something just a tad more explicit.

On the other hand, if your story is a dynastic history spanning several generations of ordinary people coping with the gentle vicissitudes of famine, flood, inheritance, politics and distant war, you would be wise to avoid a whole bunch of exploding robots on your cover.

Just imagine the reviews on Goodreads:

I thought this book would be about exploding robots but it was a costume drama set in the nineteenth century and by page 87, only three robots were mentioned and only one exploded. DNF.”

That sort of review is death so I can’t emphasise enough the need for cover integrity…which is totally a thing.

So, bearing all of that in mind, what do I have to say about my own new cover?

Welcome to Ord City has an amazing cover. It is designed to look like a retro postcard – welcoming the reader to a nice holiday location – but the reality is that Ord City is not a nice place. It is very far from being a nice place, but refugees have been welcomed there by an opaque government representing a divided community. Are refugees welcome or not?

Then there are the colours – eye-catching for sure. I defy anyone to see it in a bookstore or library and not automatically reach for it. There is a crocodile, and yes…there are crocodiles in the story (although not as apparently welcoming as the one on the cover).

There is also a gumtree which lets everyone know this is an Australian story, even though the subtext is equally relevant to any country where the issue of refugees divides the community.

There is also a quote from Pauline Wright on the cover. Pauline is President of the Law Council of Australia and one of the smartest people I know. If she says the book is astute and riveting, who shall dare oppose her?

I couldn’t be happier with the cover so congratulations to Lucy Barker who is an accomplished visual and installation artist. I am privileged to have her as a cover designer and recommend her services to anyone who wants their book to really stand out amid the savage Darwinian struggle of the bookstore.

Or library.

I only hope you all believe the story’s just as good.