Outskirts online journal

Rosslyn Prosser

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About the author

Ros Prosser teaches in the Discipline of Media at the University of Adelaide.

Publication details

Volume 20, May 2009

Fragments of a Fictocritical Dictionary

Producing “things” always involves value—what to produce, what to name the productions, and what the relationship between the producers and the named things will be. Writing “things” is no exception. No textual staging is ever innocent. Styles of writing are neither fixed nor neutral but reflect historically shifting domination of particular schools or paradigms. (Richardson 1994, p.518)
Antipodean artefacts:

as a summary of all that has gone before and is to come. Artefacts are partial but form part of a larger story. A is for Antipodes: diametrically opposed to Europe—Eporue Emoh Ruo and in that opposition I can demonstrate an appearance of belonging. When I think of the body in the landscape, it is the effect of the landscape in and on the body, a landscape where each moment is caught against the harsh blue light, and becomes fractured and disseminated. In basic terms it could be that parts of the body remember place, as feet remember sand and grass, the gritty feel of dirt when walking.

This becomes an act of memory-making and the soldering of experience onto the body. Walking through the streets of country towns it all comes back to me, I’ve been here before and I remember clearly the step into your house, the change from outside to inside, the smell of humidity, the taste of air. In these streets I see Toyota Hilux dual cabs bearing one Nation stickers that say ‘I shoot and I vote’.

Modernist collage takes to its logical, or illogical conclusion the rhetorical device of quotation. The historian or orator sets his quotations like jewels in the crown of his discourse. They enliven his remarks; they lend his argument literary and historical authority. But as Walter Benjamin understood, quotations also signify the passage of memory from the oral to the written: they revive a historical event, but they also bear witness to the fact that the event has passed out of living memory. Seizing on this paradox, the modernists aimed to prise quotations from their historical matrix, to display the jewels without the historical crown. The very absence of a linear discourse linking them would revitalize these texts, revealing their metonymic potential so that they resonated with intimations of the whole in a way that was impossible when they were buried beneath later layers of language. (Carter 1992, p. 187)


The fragmented dictionary comes into being through the telling of an anecdote.
She said: I want to tell you something. And in the telling the known perspective on the world changes and voice is given to a feeling.
The dictionary is a collage that samples through quotation, anecdote and prose. What might be produced when an anecdote is allowed to speak for itself and is utilised within a collage? A collage is added to, more pieces applied, and as a consequence of this the story shifts. Gaps are mapped but the question arises of how to account for gaps when they are made by silence.

Before anecdote we knew silence and silence bears its own dark shadow. Keeping silent, sit in the shadow. How to represent shadows in the collage except through silence? A fragmented life can only be understood by attention to random pieces that form a collage, that help to make meaning. The fictocritical means taking anecdote and making it yield meaning. Anecdote is a pervasive and productive form of discourse passed between bodies and circulated in ways that demonstrate their power as a form of governmentality.

When she says: I want to tell you something I am all ears until hearing what the anecdote contains, then I understand the silences and the gaps, I understand the various ways that my life has been managed by silences and by living in the orbit of another’s double life. Jane Gallop cites Joel Fineman as saying that Anekdota is “usually referred to as Secret History”. (Gallop 2002, p.8) In telling the anecdote a secret history is revealed. Once told it loses its power as secret. The anecdote tells history in particular ways. The history of secrets is part of the history of a secret. It is filled with the emotion of sighing, the sound of fifty years of not being spoken.

Anecdotes can be productive of all kinds of action and thought. Anekdota means things unpublished, and work must be done to the anecdote to make it respectable, to make it mean, and to make it publishable. To use the anecdote as material for research requires an understanding of the place of anecdote in the social sphere. Discussing the “autobiographical turn of cultural studies” Anna Gibbs states, “the anecdote is not necessarily a confessional genre in any straightforward sense, but functions to orient or more properly to produce a particular pragmatics, providing a model of narrative point” (Gibbs 1997, p.1).

The anecdote is set in the Queensland bush, the rich southern Queensland bush, prior to the Bjelke-Petersen era of development, prior to the scramble for land and the drift of an ever increasing population from the Southern states. Smell of soil. Smell of eucalypt. This is a family story, a family secret that erupts and fades away and is ever told in anecdotal form. Annette Kuhn says that:

a family without secrets is rare indeed. People who live in families make every effort to keep certain things concealed from the rest of the world, and at times from each other as well. Things will be lied about, or simply never mentioned. Sometimes family secrets are so deeply buried that they elude the conscious awareness even of those most closely involved. From the involuntary amnesias of repression to the wilful forgetting of matters it might be less than convenient to recall, secrets inhabit the borderlands of memory. Secrets, perhaps are a necessary condition of the stories we are prompted by memory to tell about our lives. (Kuhn 1995, pp.1-2)

It was a time of talking; it came straight from the horse’s mouth.

To the anecdote then and the possibility of its usefulness in fictocritical writing. Fictocriticism is producing work that develops new narrative machinery. It is involved in a similar task of making visible through a range of textual strategies the ways that memory and anecdotes that report on memory can be utilised in a narrative. It is acknowledging the ways that memory structures and delimits the actions of others. It illuminates the paradox at the heart of a story.

Fictocriticism could be the bringing together of the two apparently diametrically opposed forms—the written down and the anecdotal. The paradox at the heart of the fictocritical gives it a tension and liveliness which throws the reader around in uncertain ways. What is memory—again? Crimes of memory are produced through silencing memory. The crime at the heart of the anecdote demands its own silence, creating layer upon layer of denial and cover-up. This crime and ensuing silence produces a new set of relations. We were there prior to today, and we are in memory and in the present, I have to think of you in memory, your image, your face and hands, to recall you there as I speak and write.

What is it you ask, this anecdote that appears to carry so much force and once told ruptures and rearranges relationships? It is the telling of a memory that won’t be silenced and has produced a distorted life in the bearer of the memory.

She wants to tell me something. Incest is in the telling. Incest produces secrets and secrets creates lies and fabrication. Secrets make the bearer sick and have an impact on bodies. Secrets can be productive of other ways of telling and they lie in darkness, their pursuit a tentative shining of light. Secrets go into memory as blood flows through the body. Fixed and fluid, fragmented and solid settling into action and stillness, memory will reduce you to minor details and anecdotes. Incest was once the vanishing point. Speaking discourses of confession open with the anecdote. Enacted on the body, yet left on the skin and mind.

Anecdotal Evidence:

The anecdote provides me with part invention, part fact, a story embellished. To call something a fact, however, covers over the ways in which the ‘fact’ is produced. As story, as anecdote, as real. The minute it is passed on it becomes something other than the act or the event. It is re-interpreted, re-presented and spoken in the discourses of a time. Stories that were once kept as secrets, as skeletons in the closet, can be aired, can be told to an audience who hear them differently, not fully as stories but as stories of injustice only. It is the partial selection in the telling that emphasises the moments of rupture. The story sees the passing of time and the passing and changing of meaning. These anecdotal tellings become a mode of speaking and address, enabling more than the use of description or fact, enabling the psychic or the unconscious to surface in a dreamlike fashion. Memory writing produces particular effects and these allow for the personal, individual story to inhabit the wider and official historical stories and accounts which have previously been dominant forms of story making tied to nation making.Gregory Ulmer cites Hayden White as saying:

historians of literature (or of any discipline, for that matter) should use contemporary scientific and artistic insights and methods as the basis for their work, pursuing ‘the possibility of using impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representation for dramatising the significance of data which they have uncovered but which all too frequently they are prohibited from seriously contemplating as evidence’. (He suggests that) the principal device taken over by the critics and theorists is the compositional pair collage/montage. (Ulmer 1983, p.83)

Memory is a complex process of fragments of stories without end, coincidences and fatal landings. Memory is made new in each remembrance. Versions of events and stories that could be true, could be false. They all contribute to an account and become a way of thinking about events. They are all versions. the version delivered in the anecdote is embellished for effect, to bring the memory to life. Paul Carter's use of the notion of collage is helpful in thinking through memory and Australian specificity, when he suggests that:

In a post-colonial society (which means in Australia a migrant society), it is quite different. Here collage is the normal mode of constructing meaning ... to re-invigorate collage it is necessary to place the emphasis, not on its synthetic power, but on the logic of its fragmentation. Stylistically, post-colonial collage fragments the semiotic field exactly as a commercial radio station does or the front page of a newspaper or a car journey downtown. The difference lies in its attention to the fissures, its interest in mapping the gaps, the inter-zones where discontinuities are suppressed ... rather than recompose disparate realities, the goal of this collage is to decompose them further, to relocate and sound the spaces in-between. (Carter 1992, pp.186-187)

The crime is found in the gaps and fissures of memory and anecdote.
Stories remembered. Stories told over. Every time he sees her she is the reminder, she must be eliminated, her freedom stemmed. He doesn’t need to find a wife, he simply moves on down through the family. The year she was born Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup in three minutes and twenty seconds. Thirteen years later in the humidity and heat of the Queensland bush acts of incest will see disruption and fragmentation of a family.

It is an anecdote with a dirt floor, a rammed earth floor. A house made of slabs and salvaged timber, the endlessly imaged house lodged in Australian memory. It has visitors in the anecdote, welfare workers bringing clothes and food. Children watching from behind gum trees. Two families: one his wife’s children and one his daughter’s children. On seeing him move to the daughter of his daughter, on seeing the repetition his wife goes to the police. She makes her way into the town, by horse or foot, into town in her Sunday best.
She tells, she tells something of betrayal, she reports and puts her husband in jail. The families are scattered, children placed in orphanages. At thirteen she is sent to live with the local policeman and his wife.


Memory is a force of rhetoric, and it is memory and stories of memory that shift emotion, instruct you in your morals and your behavior. Often it is the memory of someone else, used as representative and homogeneous. Memory is discontinuous, surfacing at particular times often surprising the remembered. Memory is like collage with its randomness and unclear connections. Memories are out of order, they are not chronological and they contain seemingly disconnected images and ideas.

Fictocriticism utilises a discontinuous narrative which demonstrates these characteristics of memory, expecting you to fold back and follow the clues, and to sustain the investigation. Repetition and re-presenting the clues will lead you to something and then away. Each time you feel you are closing in on the meaning, it will be deflected for you and by you. There is no point in straining against the text, this text will not envelop you, has no comfort zone, no safe ending, and no kiss, you will be left out in the ocean without the comfort of the boat or the line.

Écriture Féminine:

Anna Gibbs argues that:

ficto-criticism made its appearance here in the writing (mostly academic) of women very well aware of those strange, exciting and provocative texts emanating first of all from France and then later from Canada from the late seventies onwards —most influential were Hélène Cixous’ manifesto ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ and her polemical essay ‘Castration or Decapitation’, Luce Irigaray’s first two books and in particular the collection of essays ‘This Sex Which is Not One’. (Gibbs 1997, p.1)

The influences of French feminism and the range of experimentations that have resulted from recent innovations is a point reiterated by Alison Bartlett in a discussion of Australian women writers and écriture féminine “it is a style of writing primarily marked by its disruption to conventional reading, writing and representational practices as produced through, and supported by, patriarchal values”. She goes on to say:

As a counter-strategy, écriture féminine, it is argued, is theoretically sourced in the bodies of women, [and] texts, however, are produced through the lived practices of being socially positioned as (among other things) women, so these effects will be inscribed in what is written. ‘Writing the body’ therefore plays a significant part in actively inventing new ways for women to speak and write about ourselves as women, rather than through the narrative machinery of patriarchy. (Bartlett 1998, pp.1-2)

Contingent and circumstantial. Have I met the demands of true fictocriticism? Here and there perhaps, and if failure, then call it something else. A poetics?
In the introduction to the space between: Australian women writing fictocriticism, Amanda Nettelbeck states:

Fictocriticism might most usefully be defined as hybridised writing that moves between the poles of fiction (‘invention’/’speculation’) and criticism (‘deduction’/’explication’), of subjectivity (‘interiority’) and objectivity (‘exteriority’). It is writing that brings the ‘creative’ and the ‘critical’ together – not simply in the sense of placing them side by side, but in the sense of mutating both, of bringing a spotlight to bear upon the known forms in order to make them ‘say’ something else. (Nettelbeck 1998, pp.3-4)

In Australia the term fictocriticism has a particular currency. Roland Barthes’, 'perpetual interweaving' in his notion of ‘text’ helps make sense of the ficto-critical text. (Barthes 1975, p.64) Where Barthes makes us aware of the processes of writing, and the relation of the subject to that writing, the ficto-critical works to alert the reader to the processes of meaning making, through the shifting of genres, the technique of placing one writing technique against another in the text being among some of the techniques involved in this kind of work. In fictocritical work the subject is asked not so much to unmake themselves in the reading process but to re-consider the meanings which these forms of writing address. The idea of utilising different discourses, genres, artefacts or facts within the one text allows a shift to occur which effects the product itself, the fictocritical text and the meanings contained within the text. Fictocritical texts can be historically placed within what can generally be called postmodernism.

In an essay on new writing in the Humanities, Laurel Richardson writes about the relation of postmodernism to critical writing practices stating:

The core of postmodernism is the doubt that any method or theory, discourse or genre, tradition or novelty, has a universal and general claim as the "right" or the privileged form of authoritative knowledge. Postmodernism suspects all truth claims of masking and serving particular interests in local, cultural and political struggles. But postmodernism does not automatically reject conventional methods of knowing and telling as false or archaic. Rather, it opens those standard methods and introduces new methods, which are also, then subject to critique. (Richardson 1994, pp.520-522).

And in a discussion of experimental writing she calls these new forms:

experimental representations (where) experimental writers raise and display postmodern issues (with questions of) how the author positions the Self as a knower and teller (with this leading to) the intertwined problems of subjectivity / authorship / reflexivity, on the one hand, and representational form, on the other. (Richardson 1994, pp.520-522)

She suggests a range of possible writing techniques which can be summarised as “Evocative experimental forms, narrative of the self, ethnographic fictional representations, poetic representation, ethnographic drama and mixed genres” (Richardson 1994, pp.520-522). As King states:

Given the degree of theoretical dispute that attaches to the use of postmodernism as a critical category, it seems to me that the most appropriate way of thinking about the whole debate surrounding the term is to first regard it as a discursive field or discursive formation whose contours can be mapped, and second to construe it as the latest name given to the gap which opens between particular practices of cultural criticism and the cultural objects they purport to describe. (King 1994, p. 263)

This is a more useful way of thinking about textual products, rather than developing a reactive or negative stance. Whilst in creative work it is possible to produce texts made up of collage, montage, fragments, disjointed and discontinuous, and to rely on the use of intertextuality, why not in academic writing? Is it the playing with text that lets the theoretical venture move between and amongst the fragments of the creative?


King describes the fragment and its uses in the following way: “One of the main reasons for utilising the fragment form is precisely the way it enables the writer to resist some habitual conceptions of coherence and pattern”, and he quotes Barthes:

the fragment’s appeal is—a propensity for division: fragments, miniatures, partitions, glittering details, and the fragment is said to approximate the art, graphic and photographic processes of collage, the cinematic and video practice of montage, and the musical form of the song cycle and enables him to write ‘more openly, more unprotectedly’ without the guarding and comfort provided by marxism, semiology, or some other ‘great system’. (King 1994, p271)

Fragments of text, remnants of memory, bones of a story. The use of the fragment asks that you remember from word to word, that the accumulation of images and stories allows you to construct and formulate, to become a detective, passing for a moment into some imagined subjectivity where only your personal safety is jeopardised. At heart you are still the reader of the text and able to remember who you once were; it isn’t a very big jump to make. You are always fragmented. A sense of solidity is disrupted when you look away and remember an event which happened years before. Fragmentation occurs with memory and memory produces it’s own fragments of story that need re-framing for consumption.


One of the contours that can be mapped in fictocriticism and as described by Stephen Muecke, is the use of nomadism or nomadology, and this is not unlike James Clifford’s use of travelling theory (Clifford 1997).

[N]omadology is not a general theory, a summary of observations. It is rather a way of looking which is specific (to a place like Roebuck Plains), a way of representing things (in discontinuous fragments, stopping and starting). It is an aesthetic/political stance and is constantly in flight from ideas or practices associated with the singular, the original, the uniform, the central authority, the hierarchy ... without for all that ascribing to any form of anarchy. It is descriptive, but also analytical and creative. While it might talk about things people do in their travels, it can also be about abstract journeys taking place while one is sitting down: trips in intensity which involve working with a kind of avidity to keep words and images on the move. (Muecke 1984, p.15)

I am persuaded by and in myself that the state of nomadology is a description of the soul of diaspora, where appearing to belong, I have managed to virtually erase all belonging outside of the continent, to erase all ideas of having come from elsewhere, which gives Australian its own inflections.

It is the appearance of belonging that becomes the representation.
Escape is possible in landscapes that are right outside your door, right inside your head.

Nostalgia: resist it. These could be nostalgic times, caught in the melancholy of ordinariness. For memory is selective and requires interpretation when it does arise. Moving on supplies me with the appearance of forgetting. On the highway then, strapping down the handmade leather back-pack, a sinewy arm grabs at the buckles, she wanted to be Jack, to be Kerouac, where romance of the road is a respect for the move.

It’s an absence of a certain kind of routine, the routine is now. Across shifting landscapes I want to be one with the grey highway, to lie down in its white stripes and watch the wheels pass me by. At Pinnaroo a man and woman sit at a table for early breakfast, big mugs of black tea, shoulders hunched in down-filled checked jackets. Husband and wife, eggs, chip and sausages, silent eating. Outside I see their big truck loaded with timber. Two by fours. There’s something else. Maybe it’s the woman. The distance from the other truckies in the café. A silence of wheels hitting dust, movement in a Slim Dusty sound track.

“We were delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time — move” (Muecke 1997, p127).

What might it mean to think through Trinh Minh Ha’s statement of “writing itself as a practice located at the intersection of subject and history—a literary practice that involves the knowledge (linguistically and ideological) of itself as such” (Trinh 1989, p.6), and develop a response that constantly works toward itself in these terms and is a demonstration of the linguistic and the ideological asking. What kind of subject am I? It is to this recognition of subjects being positioned historically, linguistically and ideologically that I work through my own position as a writer. I return to it constantly and ask what it means. To consider writing as a practice rather than as a creative gift, to consider myself as located at a particular intersection, what kind of subject am I, what are the historical circumstances I find myself in, what does it mean to be aware of oneself linguistically and ideologically or to have one’s writing be a demonstration of these factors? I have attempted to keep these questions in mind and consider Trinh’s location of the writing subject to be the perfect capsule for thinking about a range of ideas. This question lies at the heart of my attempt to understand and use the fictocritical. As the writing subject I can tell you here that my subjectivity is formed out of the history and social and cultural frameworks that shaped me. I am the grand-daughter of the man who died in Boggo Road jail and the appeal of the fragment is understanding the way that life was fragmented by real disruption of bodies. I am produced as the recipient of the anecdote that tells of the disruption. To render it in the fictocritical is to attempt a writing and reading of the anecdote as shaped by historical and social circumstance.


I see what I do as fictocritical, an area of textual production, which demonstrates a particular kind of nexus between theory and creative writing. This nexus can be both productive and problematic. My interest in this area takes the form of working with and in, both the creative and the academic. Creative writing programmes have sprung up in English and other related areas of universities in recent years in Australia, (see Dawson 1999, 2003, Kroll 2002, Krauth 2002, Brewster 1996), in some countries these programmes have been running for many years, in some cases it is English Literature academics equipped with the techniques of literary theory and textual analysis who are involved in teaching creative writing. My writing is informed by theory, and this is wide ranging, from thinking about place and landscape in Australia and the self as a product of discourses, to producing collage, collage which is made up of the blending of the creative and the academic. Can writing be taught? More importantly can experimental modes or ficto modes be taught? James Clifford is useful for thinking about the Australian context. He states

My levers for prying open the culture idea were expanded concepts of writing and collage, the former seen as interactive, open-ended and processed, the latter as a way of making space for heterogeneity, for historical and political, not simply aesthetic juxtapositions. Ethnographic practices of making and unmaking cultural meanings were discussed in a historical context of Euro-American colonial expansion and the unfinished contestations, which, since 1945, have gone under the name of ‘decolonization’. (Clifford 1997, p.3)

Born into this era and enabled in technologies of the self that impact on academic writing is acknowledged by Hermione Lee discussing the changes in knowledge-making and the impact of feminism and post-modern theories in an interview about her biography of Virginia Woolf:

Lee says she is only just learning to write personally, to use the word "I". When I started writing in my 20s, I was in a generation when to be a proper scholar, you had to suppress your personal emotions, and write with formal objectivity, (she says) with the changes in academic and feminist writing, it's now possible to move between the personal and critical in a much more flexible way. (Sullivan 2000 p.24)

Fictocriticism is an attempt to bridge creative and academic writing. It is not factual nor is it a conventional historical or autobiographical accounting of events; it does not delve into the official archive, but presents a possibility for another kind of archive. This is outside of the official archive and the known and recognisable. It is more interested in the production of a poetic representation, in the production of something that might look like a collage or a poetics, that uses anecdote and memory-writing to produce another form.Ulmer suggests:

It turns out that it is possible to learn to write a theory of poetics in the same way that one learns to write interpretations or critiques [and] In an experimental humanities, students (and teachers) learn to write original poetics. The value of these poetics may then be tested by using them to see what sorts of work they help the student (or any investigator) to generate. In the heuretic classroom, students become producers as well as consumers of theory. (Ulmer 1994, p. xiii)

It is with great uncertainty that the fictocritical work unfolds. How to take seemingly disparate elements of story and attempt to make them into a work that wants incoherence yet demands coherence? That wants to take the “jewels in the crown, the device of quotation” (Carter 1992, p.187) to the extreme. To let them make their own mark without the double act of re-interpretation. There is a desire for closure that is never met, and there is a need to give it a use value, to ask—of what use is this work? I ask myself this and know that it falls inbetween some place known as fictocriticism and experimental, and there I have to leave uncertainty in the text and know that it is a possible state of being which is textual and non-textual. As a way of dealing with anecdotal material, fictocriticism allows for the use of the anecdote in the re-telling of story and the attendant critique of the uses made of anecdote and memory.


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