Literary authors don’t sell and finding a publisher for a well-crafted book can be a nightmare. So, why bother? Why write literature?

Italo Calvino answered this question by analysing another interrogative: Why Read the Classics?[i] In that essay Calvino presents 14 definitions of what the classics are. If there is a reason for having the Classics there must be a reason for trying to write a classical work of literature. We are going to borrow Calvino’s definitions and transform them a little in order to work out why some writers (like us) still bother to persist with the literary genre, while giving special relevance to the drafting of our latest novel When Sirens Call[ii].

  • Writers of literature have to want to write books that people will want to reread. The first encounter with the book is immaterial, the aim is to create a product which will find a permanent place on the reader’s bookshelf.

How is this achieved? The literary writer has to create complexity through detail, levels of interpretation and depth of meaning. For the literary writer the narrative is less important than the message. Non-literary works are a meal, but literature is a recipe book as well all the meals that can be made from that book.

In the case of When Sirens Call we began with a complex folding and unfolding of forms. Our book is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey via Joyce’s Ulysses, transforming Harold Bloom back into Odysseus but now in the body of a young Australian girl on her own odyssey in the Mediterranean. The link is through form: syntax mostly. The syntax of Ulysses pushed back into the epic voyage home of the Odyssey. Right from the first sentence the readers of literature will hear echoes of distant books, seeping into and flowing through the unfolding narrative of Belinda Babchek. The depth in literature lies in the depth of literature itself.

  • Writing literature means writing books that want to be treasured by those who have read them. But readers will only treasure a great book if they encounter it in the best conditions.

As Calvino says: “reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the products instructions for use, and inexperience in life itself.”

These negative barriers between the reader and the writer have to be expected by the literary author. It is also the main reason why so often agents and publishers fail to see genius when great works are presented to them. What this means for the literary author is that he or she must persist with his or her attempts to get their book to the readers. Once it is read in the right conditions the book will find its place … and there is always a place somewhere for great literature.

But it also means that the writer of great literature must have: patience, good concentration, and a deep experience with literature and life itself.

  • The literary author wants to write a book that will exert an influence on its readers: “both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”

Again this is managed by creating depth, both in form and meaning.

  • Writing literature is about making the work so complex that every rereading “is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.”

And hence …

  • “Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.”

Or …

  • What we are writing is a book that “has never finished what it has to say.”
  • When writing we must always bear in mind that we are not trying to create something out of nothingness. The writing is a bringing forward in a new way what has always been there, and we must leave traces for the reader pointing to readings of other great works. Literature is an accumulation of literature. When a reader reads When Sirens Call that reading will be enriched if they have in mind Homer’s text, or Joyce’s, or both of them.

How does the writer achieve this? By carefully reading the classics and absorbing them.

  • The literary author does not necessarily write things that teach us anything new. Literature is about origins, relationships and affinities. The writer of literature has to be prepared to (and must want to) crawl through the labyrinth.
  • Write books that will always be found fresher, more surprising and more marvellous each time they are read. And the key to this again is “complexity”. When one writes literature, one is creating an entire universe.
  • Desire to write the total book. Establish a “strong rapport in terms of opposition and antithesis.”
  • Be the kind of author to whom no one will be able to feel indifferent.
  • Great literature flows through us like a river over which we stand. The ultimate aim of your writing is the future and never the now. A future built on the accumulation of all that flows with it, and carries it forward. Your work needs the river to carry it forward.
  • Remember this point by Calvino: “A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but … this background noise is something we cannot do without.”
  • And: “A classic is something that persists as background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.”

[i] All the quotes in this essay are from Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics?” published in English in THE LITERATURE MACHINE, Picador, 1989, pp. 125 – 134.

[ii] WHEN SIRENS CALL by Paul David Adkin, Threekookaburras, 2014.


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