Gerald Murnane’s Class: A Review of Murnane, by Emmett Stinson

Let us take the bull by the horns:

[Gerald Murnane] is without question both the most original and most significant Australian author of the last fifty years, and the best writer Australia has produced since Christina Stead. (Stinson 104)

One cannot help but ask what Murnane himself might make of this claim. On the one hand, he would surely find it flattering: who would not? To have one’s work hailed as even more significant than that of – to take but a few of the usual suspects – Alexis Wright, Patrick White, Helen Garner and David Malouf is no mean feat. And this is to exclude the poets from consideration, though Stinson’s terms (‘author’ and ‘writer’, in lieu of the narrower ‘novelist’) notably do not. What about another Wright – Judith? Or Oodgeroo Noonuccal? Les Murray? Lionel Fogarty? John Kinsella? To declare it is so with nary an instance of comparison makes this seem less a self-evidently defensible claim than a provocation intended to provoke spirited debate, especially given that little indication is offered as to what constitutes significance for Stinson. His approach in the preceding hundred pages is by turns introductory, contextual, and explicatory, offering a series of useful inroads that both academic and non-academic readers might follow to arrive at a better grasp of Murnane’s four post-break fictions, rather than evaluative, as this claim might otherwise lead readers to believe. The chief virtues of Murnane (2023) as a contribution to scholarship are its careful tracking of references across and beyond the titular author’s corpus, and its account of this obsessive grammarian’s oeuvre-spanning practice of literary revisionism, both of which build steadily upon the foundation laid by Imre Salusinszky’s Gerald Murnane (1993) and Anthony Uhlmann’s edited essay collection Gerald Murnane: Another World in This One (2020). This comparatively modest scholarly endeavour makes Stinson’s big bad bold claim all the more striking. Such an unusually explicit judgment of Murnane’s place in Australian literary history arrives at the eleventh hour, just a page or two before the critic’s voice cedes the soapbox entirely (well, almost) to that of this most auto-exegetical of writers, via the interview that permits Stinson’s subject the last word on his work. Footnotes, of course, excluded. Which takes us rather neatly back to the question with which we began.

Murnane might well be flattered; he might equally be baffled. ‘[I]t is fashion rather than judgment’, he declares near the end of Murnane with more than a hint of a huff, lamenting the admittedly egregious neglect of his novel A Million Windows (2014) in that year’s prize circuit, ‘that determines these awards’ (114). Such an irritation at scenes of literary judgment – or in less grouchy moods, a weariness, even bemusement – is a feature of both the interview that closes Murnane and of the fiction that immediately precedes A Million Windows, A History of Books (2012). We can find therein a Murnanean personage, a man formerly (much like his author) an undergraduate student of English at the University of Melbourne, who we are told ‘never understood how his teachers and fellow students had been able to read the texts as they seemed able to read them or afterwards to talk and to write about the texts as they talked and wrote’: he objects to what he sees as their Leavisite pretensions, the way ‘his lecturers and tutors spoke as though he and his fellow students were practising literary criticism of the sort practised by the greatest of all literary critics … a man whose name the young man pretended to have forgotten as soon as he had completed his university degree’ (58). He finds their ambitions equal parts incomprehensible and regrettable. What the man regrets is that his younger self was ever taught to suppose ‘that he ought to read fiction for some purpose other than to wait during the hours or the days after his reading for the appearance in his mind of images never previously read about or written about’ (59). Put plainly, he regrets that the study of literature instrumentalises reading in order to serve the torturous ends of literary criticism, a point he makes explicit in his essay ‘Save Us From Text Maniacs’ (2008). Yet we should not ignore the telling adverb in his qualification, which I will italicise for emphasis: one reads to prompt the appearance of images ‘never previously read or written about’ (59). Those images currently being written about – those reported to us when we read a work of fiction like A History of Books – by this logic indirectly owe their existence to the reading of other works of fiction. Murnane reads fiction, in other words, in order to write: not to produce criticism, which he neither comprehends nor cares for, but fiction of his own. One’s own writing, in both cases, is the endpoint. It is a version of the difference, spelled out with unusual clarity, between the reason one might read for a degree in literature and the reason one might do so (at least if one believes the writing of fiction is tantamount to writing a true report of the writer’s mind) for a degree in creative writing.

Judgment is thus at best the name of a mild irritant in the Murnaniverse, an annoyance roughly on the level of people who do not like horseraces or those peskily filmic novels or absurd concepts like ‘politics’ and ‘morality’. This is because it has no necessary relation to the appearing in one’s mind of images yet unpenned, which as we now know is the only reason one ought to read in the first place. And here we brush up against a rather different sense of Murnane’s literary-historical significance. It is a sense that Murnane alights on at several junctures, albeit one that Stinson never quite distils into a thesis. It is in play, for instance, when he remarks that the publication of Last Letter to a Reader (2021) means Murnane is ‘technically the first author of a critical work about the complete oeuvre of Gerald Murnane’ (16); it is there when he astutely notes that A Million Windows is both an ‘experimental satire of creative writing instruction’ and at the same time a kind of ‘creative writing manual’ (55). We could go further: if A Million Windows is something like an anti-creative writing textbook, then surely we should take at face value Murnane’s claim that Barley Patch (2009) is ‘not really a book so much as an explanation as to why another book wasn’t written’, and dub it an anti-exegesis (Stinson 113). Rounding out this trilogy of pedagogical fictions, one needs no imagination whatsoever to see that A History of Books is an anti-syllabus of sorts, a complete course in MURN101 except for the fact that it is missing a list of assigned texts (though a note by his publisher, Ivor Indyk, provides some). Framed in this way, Murnane seems most significant not as some kind of parochial eccentric – not as an unsung would-be laureate tending bar in his eighties or, as Indyk would have it, an embattled exemplar of the ‘provincial imagination’ – but rather as a professional writer who has repeatedly worked to transmute the ostensibly leaden instructional labours of his sixteen-year career as a creative writing instructor into easily parodied yet somehow inimitable threads of literary gold. Even in retirement, Murnane’s reports continue to be catalysed by his oft-professed aversion to those judgmental Leavisites who first introduced him to the shock of the tertiary system: his elaborate fictional repudiation of them, developed via a remarkable if occasionally incoherent alternative program of narratorial poetics, finds its most meaningful explanatory context in discipline historian Paul Dawson’s contention that creative writing emerged as a tertiary subject in Australia ‘as a challenge to traditional literary education, rather than a defence of it’ (126). Much as Murnane might hate to be deemed a mouthpiece for anything so abstract and academic, it does not take a genius to see that, in what seems like his wholesale rejection of academic literary reading, the formative imperatives of an adjacent discipline are speaking through him.

So in what sense is Murnane, as Stinson writes, really ‘a homemade avant-garde of one’ (103)? To take seriously the account of Murnane’s significance that I have sketched above is to temper the claim to his singularity and originality with evidence of his representativeness: with a sense of his career’s profound dependence – intellectual and material – on what we might call his institutionality, a condition common among literary novelists nowadays. (Hopefully, we can point this out without undermining such judgments entirely: my own intention here is to intensify debate over, rather than foreclose, the fascinating question of literary value.) Its challenge is less to any of Murnane’s many insights into individual works than its underlying frame. In ‘The Typescript Stops Here: Or, Who Does the Consultant Consult?’, Murnane recalls marking ‘between 300 and 400 pieces of students’ fiction, each piece being of about 2,000 words’, each of the sixteen years he taught at Victoria College of Advanced Education and later Deakin University (73). He has by these numbers read some ten million words’ worth of student fiction, give or take. His classes have included, at one time or another, the likes of Tom Cho and Maria Takolander. Is this really a life that, as Stinson claims, ‘seems relatively uneventful if not conventional’ (10)? Did getting with the tertiary program as early as he did, from 1980, mean the shape of his career has actually been rather unusual? Murnane’s lecture-essay ‘The Breathing Author’ (2001), much of which takes the form of a report-cum-reenactment of the live composition demonstrations that he would perform for his students, is an account of what surely qualifies as one of the most singular teaching careers this country has ever seen. As for the rest of the world, Murnane’s short fiction is now assigned in creative writing courses in the US, the UK, and beyond. An avant-garde of one? Not implausible, but that one’s lessons – in person and in fiction – have shaped at least a class or two, and there is a case to be made for what they have meant to an entire discipline.

But as someone cited in Murnane for what I hope will remain my definitive scholarly accomplishment (that is, for pointing out in an interview that Murnane’s archive includes a folder which may or may not contain his dick measurements), it would be remiss of me to end this piece without at least trying to throw another spanner in the works. In A Million Windows, reading is elided with counting in a game wherein the number of letters (‘odd or even’, including commas) in a hastily selected word or phrase determines the outcome (‘unfavourable’ or ‘favourable’) of a Murnanean personage’s autoerotic fantasy (171). When he becomes too adept at estimating the number of letters in such phrases ‘even while he was composing them’, the unit of titillation instead becomes the sentence, ‘and not the simple sentence with a subject and a predicate but the complex sentence with at least two subordinate clauses’ (171–2). The number of outcomes swells from two to five; the personage eagerly begins to ‘record in writing what he likes to call his imagine-imaginings’ (173). His climax arrives in ‘the final, perfect modification of his game’ via the introduction of ‘a rule that each sentence of his text would not only record the latest seeming-event in the game but would, at the same time, determine details of the event following’ (173). The compositional loop closes; reading entails writing entails reading entails writing; ‘the text, it might be said, wrote itself’ (174).

To observe that for all its clever involution this remains at base a fantasy of endless reproductivity – the pen, it might be said, stroked itself – is important, insofar as it spells out the grounds on which Murnane’s approach to reading can be judged excessively self-absorbed, of interest to readers only insofar as they are willing to accept the genius of the implied author. A Million Windows is self-reflexive enough to accommodate this critique, noting that some among the house of fiction’s residents consider ‘such enterprises as wasters of time and the mental energy that ought to be devoted to the writing of fiction’ (174). Other residents posit that such games are ‘a sort of training for the task of fiction-writing’; others still consider all such games ‘an esoteric sort of fiction’ (174). But whatever one’s views on Murnane’s longstanding predilection for reporting the erotic fantasies of authorial stand-ins, it is not hard to see that the real fetish here – a fetish appealed to even by the dissenters! – is a fetish not only of reproductivity but hyper-productivity. Must I write? Yes. Go on. Forever. This question, with which Barley Patch begins, may well be itself an answer to the ‘pestering’ of his publisher, which Murnane refers to in his interview with Stinson as a ‘turning point’ in his career, by which he means that Indyk winkled him out of retirement (113). Another answer would be to hand said publisher a work of fiction that writes itself, and it seems at times that the prospect of an effortlessly self-generating fiction is what Murnane really yearns for, even strives after, in his project of programmatic autoexegesis. This would be one way for him to finally retire: for the report of himself, laid out in plain sentences, to simply proceed apace with the business of writing, all on its own. Absent this reality, perhaps a signposted archive will do. There is, to be sure, something residually literary even in the most puerile version of this project, though it is hard to imagine how such a procedurally generated work could ever sustain serious scholarly attention. Unless, of course, we are seeking to understand how the phenomenon of hyper-productivity itself – writ large in the pressure all tertiary employees feel, regardless of their institutional allegiances, to provide a constant, ongoing, endlessly rejuvenating account of their intellectual labours – is made manifest at the level of form and syntax. Is it nothing more than a diligent feat of authorial CV-building, spelled out in so many meticulously branching sentences, that has secured Murnane’s significance in the judgment of his academic readers? Surely not – but it seems equally naïve to avoid consideration of the degree to which it is. Spurn us though Murnane might, as Murnane amply testifies, his fiction is unlikely to escape the affections of literary critics anytime soon.

Published 25 May 2024 in Volume 39 No. 1. Subjects: Gerald Murnane.

Cite as: Steinberg, Joseph. ‘Gerald Murnane’s Class: A Review of Murnane, by Emmett Stinson.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2024, doi: 10.20314/als.4c4ff93a44.