Earlier this week I sat in the audience while publisher Louise Adler, from Melbourne University Press, delivered this year’s Redmond Barry Lecture on Why Writing Matters.
It wasn’t, frankly, what I was expecting, but I suppose I shouldn’t have expected Ms Adler to mince words.
… why does writing matter in the age of the image? When we are inundated by images of despair, disenfranchisement and deracination, why do words carry so much significance?
…Writing about terror can help us understand what we fear, but it can also engender a sense of the world as a frightening place. Perhaps writing about terror brings us too close to it? Should we resist, on principle, understanding how terror works? Or is it in fact the duty of literature to continue to explore such the question of man’s inhumanity. George Steiner asked a version of this question in relationship to Nazism. “I am not sure whether anyone, however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on these dark places can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact. Yet the dark places are at the centre. Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of the human potential”.
I have been thinking about the problem of writing about terror and the Holocaust for some time. Most novelistic attempts leave me with a sense of discomfort; the literary re-imaginings of that period can seem vaguely prurient and even self-indulgent. Today we are confronted with new horrors, new terrors to consider. The question is how can literary writing appropriately respond to the moment.
…Once we belong to a community of readers, we can begin to think aloud, to think together about hopelessness and that becomes, in itself, surely a cause for hope. And equally importantly precisely why writing matters.
Her lecture has been published in full by The Age, and will be available soon as audio soon, along with previous years’ (pardon the plug), here.
I’ll come back to the topic of writing about the Holocaust shortly.
[Days later … you can listen to the lecture here.]