Michael Wilding’s Three Centres of Value

Michael Wilding's 'Canal Run', a story from The West Midland Underground (1975), fuses two of his powerful early influences, D.H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe. In so doing it introduces a number of themes which come to typify his creative writing. Its first-person narrator, a young grammar school boy, moves moodily through a bleak Lawrentian industrial landscape on forced cross-country runs. 'The runs, to me then, were further instruments of taming and torture, cruelties inflicted to show up my inabilities, inabilities I affected to despise until I did come to despise them, consider them not inabilities at all but evidence of my separateness from the bulk of people, from the bulk of boys I disliked and the attitudes I hated' (25). Introspection, impotent anti-authoritarianism, suspicion and separateness mark this early example of Wilding's published fiction. The story's autobiographical quality too is a precursor of a great deal of the writing to come. Much of the early fiction, especially those stories set in England, has the quality of a Bildungsroman. It sets out the vital developmental details for the writer-to-be and an early context for the motifs of his literary career.

Yet Wilding is much more than a creative writer. His contribution to Australian culture has been in a number of fields, three of which (creative writing, criticism and publishing) are most central. And this is in keeping with his world-view. According to Wilding ('After Libertarianism', see below 291), Australian literary culture used to have three vital centres of value: the academy; the literary writers, performers and reviewers; and the publishing industry. They formed a network of relations and tensions that benefited Australian writing. Today we have but one centre: publishing. All values are determined by and emanate from it. Criticism and writing are now in the service of multinational capitalist publishers. 'The only values in the publishing industry are accountants' values. The decisions are not made by the editors but by the sales people. Everything has been compressed into this single value of profitability' ('After Libertarianism' 292).

The accuracy of this argument is not the issue at this point; though it will bear some examination later. It is, however, a useful argument to fold back onto the life and work of Wilding, whose career can be read as a refusal to allow these three centres to collapse in his own practices. His career is, rather, a prolonged exercise in keeping the three arenas separate and alive. Whatever might be happening to Australian literary culture, Michael Wilding has his own three centres of personal value, none of which dominates, all of which are in permanent states of tension, creative or not.

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Published 1 May 1998 in Volume 18 No. 3. Subjects: Australian literary criticism, Australian literature and writers, Australian publishers, Defining an Australian literature, Marxism, Politics, Postmodern criticism, Poststructuralism, Structuralism, Writer's craft.

Cite as: Syson, Ian. ‘Michael Wilding’s Three Centres of Value.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1998, doi: 10.20314/als.116e332712.