Helen Flavell completed her PhD on Canadian and Australian ficto-criticism at Murdoch University. She currently works in the Office of Teaching and Learning at Curtin University and has published papers on ficto-criticism.
Volume 20, May 2009
In a 1995 interview a group of women writers from North America speak of the supportive and inspirational nature of their long standing collective that helped enable their experimentation with writing forms, in particular, critical or academic writing. As one of them states, she wanted to bring together her different selves that wrote under different pseudonyms in different genres; including fiction, journalism and academic criticism. In this interview with Jeffrey Williams titled “Writing in Concert,” Cathy Davidson, Alice Kaplan, Jane Tompkins and Marianna Torgovnick ponder the relevance of identifying their experimental critical writing practice. They reflect on whether they could, at a point in the future, be considered to have been part of a salon. Torgovnick says,
You’re making me feel as if we need a name for what we’re doing, because otherwise somebody else is going to give us a name. I think we’ve been resistant to giving it a name. . .I don’t have any problems with being in a circle. I think we probably do represent a movement and we are passing up a power-move in not naming it. It’s a temptation that women have always succumbed to, not naming the movement, and then some man comes in and names [it] (Williams 67).
The interview continues as Davidson, Kaplan, Tompkins and Torgovnick discuss the process of developing their cross-genre practice. They suggest their practice was enabled through being secure enough “to try things that might not bring glory” (Williams 60). By not having to impress anyone in their profession they were able to take risks in their writing as academics. In the same interview, they acknowledge the political nature of their experimental critical writing, written “from their own voices” and against the tradition of impersonal scholarly writing.
In Australia there has also been a movement toward this kind of writing, well recognised enough to engender this special issue, conference panel discussions, university courses and postgraduate research. However, unlike the situation discussed above where there was no move to name their writing form, in this country one term has risen to prominence to describe texts that blur the distinction between creative and critical writing: “ficto-criticism” Although “ficto-criticism” as a label has at times been challenged in Australia (Brook 2002) it retains its currency within writing and academic communities (Hecq 2005).1 According to Hecq, ficto-criticism reflects the impact of the debates that have “dominated academic and philosophical thought for the last thirty years” that “neither poetic nor critical language can any longer claim to be impervious to” (2005: 179). What Hecq is referring to is the impact of “deconstruction, cultural studies and interdisciplinary approaches to art and literature” (2005: 179). By challenging the voice of normative academic writing positioned “on high” from its subject it is argued that ficto-criticism draws attention to the arbitrary nature of objective knowledge thus reflecting on—and contributing to—the critical re-evaluation of academic writing as a way of knowing and representing the world. As Anne Brewster has argued, ficto-criticism’s “necessary self-consciousness” is an ethical imperative, making “visible what is necessarily effaced in the process of writing the academic essay” (1996: 94). Since ficto-criticism’s practice interrogates the violence of representation inherent in speaking for and about another, it is not surprising that ficto-criticism is aligned with marginal knowledges such as feminism (see for example, The Space Between: Australian Women Writing Fictocriticism, 1998). The relatively marginal status of ficto-criticism as “writing-between” means that there are potential risks associated with undertaking it. This is certainly suggested by the paragraph above describing the North American women writers’ use of pseudonyms and their reflection on the politics associated with not naming their form. Writing between genres represents a threat to the status quo as traditionalists resent the incursion of theory into poetic works and the loss of rigor implied by the incorporation of the poetic into theoretical or academic writing (see, for example, Bob Hodge’s “Monstrous Knowledge: Doing PhDs in the New Humanities”). Similarly, refusing to name their critical-creative practice reinforces the political ethos of ficto-criticism by refusing the mastery of academic discourse that has the potential to reduce and contain a highly experimental form. This paper is, therefore, interested in interrogating the ethical-political character of ficto-criticism. It explores the origins of both the term ficto-criticism and the practice in Australia and asks how one term became popular to describe a form which transgresses the rules of both mainstream academic and creative writing through the incursion of generic markers belonging to the other. Through an exploration of the term’s adoption in Australia this paper argues that ficto-criticism is a complex practice and category, which does not automatically ensure a more ethical relationship with the other nor is it necessarily antithetical to the power relations implied by traditional academic writing and scholarship. Furthermore, close attention to the individual micro-politics of ficto-critical works is required to determine whether a ficto-critical text is as disruptive as its advocates suggest, namely, can it unlearn academic writing’s authority and privilege as the beginning of a process towards developing an ethical relationship with the other
Significantly, the earliest best-known use of the term in Australia is Stephen Muecke and Noel King’s 1991 paper titled “On Ficto-Criticism,” published in Australian Book Review (ABR). Here Muecke and King make reference to a statement made by Fredric Jameson:
It is very clear that there has been a flowing together of theory and criticism. It seems that theory can’t exist without telling little narrative stories and then at this point of criticism, criticism seems very close to simply telling stories. It is an advanced energetic form of conceptual criticism. (9)
These words from Jameson are used to explicate ficto-criticism, the term that Muecke and King establish here to identify this creative-critical practice. They also make reference to Rosalind Krauss’ term paraliterature, which is used to describe a seemingly parallel form of writing that deliberately blurs the distinction between literature and literary-criticism (Kerr 93).2 In her article Krauss states:
[Barthes’ more recent work] cannot be called criticism, but it cannot, for that matter be called not-criticism either. Rather, criticism finds itself caught in a dramatic web of many voices, citations, asides, divagations. And what is created as in the case of much of Derrida, is a kind of paraliterature. (292)
Notably, paraliterature, which at many points appears to be almost interchangeable with ficto-criticism, continues Muecke and King’s emphasis on the critical aspect of creative-critical texts. As the quotation above signals, they do not focus on the fictional characteristics of ficto-criticism; it is the contamination of the critical text with fiction that is of interest. Muecke and King’s references to Krauss and Jameson are significant as they have informed the visible, that is, published discourse of Australian ficto-criticism. In particular, Muecke and King’s paper has influenced the production of an Australian ficto-critical practice that is strongly couched in terms of postmodernism. This is largely due to the prominence of their article in ABR as one of the key, original works addressing ficto-criticism (Brook). As their references to Derrida, Barthes and Krauss demonstrate, ficto-criticism is conceptualised in their article within a postmodern and poststructuralist context. Whilst it is simplistic to reduce poststructuralism to postmodernism, the two are often conflated with poststructuralism being broadly associated with the postmodern movement (Wolfreys et al.). Significantly, Krauss’ text is a good illustration of how the reduction of complex theories and positionings occurs. Krauss’ article is, after all, titled “Poststructualism and the Paraliterary.” Derrida certainly would not have appreciated being identified as simply a poststructuralist, yet here Krauss has grouped him with another contemporary French theorist, Barthes, under the umbrella of poststructuralism.3 Whilst she is not wrong to do so, many of the subtleties of Derrida’s work are lost. Another good example of the collapse of postmodernism with poststructuralism in her paper is her statement that postmodern literature is the critical text wrought into a paraliterary form. Krauss states: “what is clear is that Barthes and Derrida are the writers, not the critics, that students now read” (Krauss 295).
In the same way, and in keeping with this postmodern theme, Muecke and King’s paper opens with a quote from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, a text renowned for its postmodern characteristics. Similarly, in the interview with Jameson from which the quote on ficto-criticism arises, the discussion begins with a question about postmodernism. These references intersect both with Jameson’s words, which are used to explain ficto-criticism, and with Krauss’ theorisation of paraliterature and naturalise the notion that postmodernism has heavily influenced the invention of ficto-criticism. By quoting Jameson, an academic with an international reputation as a postmodern theorist and commentator, Muecke and King affirm that postmodernism is the theoretical context of ficto-criticism. Ficto-criticism and paraliterature are thus both constructed as an effect of postmodernism.
It is not, however, just postmodernism that is brought into play but the notion of postmodernism as a radical crisis or rupture in knowledge. Muecke in “On Ficto-criticism,” for example, quotes King who says:
Jameson’s description of the crisis in which ‘the hermeneutic gesture’ now finds itself is an exact description of the problem confronting the relations of literary-culture studies to an increasing array of postmodern fictions and/or various lines of ficto-critical flight. (13)
Similarly, they add: “With both postmodernism and ficto-criticism you have a return to storytelling and a shift away from the dense, intransitive language of the high modernists such as Joyce and Faulkner” (14).4 This last sentence sets up a binary between modernism and postmodernism as each opposes the other. In “On Ficto-criticism” there is also tangible excitement around this new genre of writing. This excitement and the less than conservative style and tone of the paper further confirm the radical flavour of both ficto-criticism and postmodernism as well as the fact that they constitute a challenge to established paradigms of writing and knowledge.
Other early texts confirm the influence of not only Muecke and King but also postmodernism, thus validating and naturalising the version of ficto-criticism presented in the ABR article. For example, in 1992 Bob Hodge and Alec McHoul published a paper in Textual Practice called “The Politics of Text and Commentary.” In it they put forward Reading the Country (1984) by Muecke, Krim Benterrack and Paddy Roe as a model for a new type of positive self-reflexive commentary. Hodge and McHoul call this kind of writing “ficto-criticism or critical fiction” (209). This reference to Muecke’s co-authored book as a potential new form of critical commentary called ficto-criticism, and the publication of his ficto-critical text No Road in 1997, has helped ensure his influence as one of the ficto-critical writers and theorists in Australia (certainly in terms of the published record). This is something Muecke has claimed for himself. As part of his email signature in 2002, for example, he stated: “‘No Road’ had developed a new genre of writing, ficto-criticism, which responds to the demands for an imaginative treatment of problems in contemporary cultural settings” (Muecke).5 Similarly, Muecke’s No Road was promoted on the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) website, where Muecke was employed at the time as “the first ficto-critical monograph published in Australia” (2002). King also has credence beyond the co-authored paper with Muecke, as there are two other papers by him that address ficto-criticism. “Occasional Doubts: Ian Hunter’s Genealogy of Interpretative Depth” (1993) and “My Life Without Steve: Postmodernism, Ficto-criticism and the Paraliterary” (1994). These publications add to King’s credentials as one of the key writers who engaged very early with this emerging form. Given that there is a general paucity of sources dealing with ficto-criticism on available scholarly electronic databases Muecke and King appear to have had substantial influence on the development of Australian ficto-criticism.6
Further texts affirm Muecke and King’s influence and central position. In 1995, for example, a panel discussion on ficto-criticism was held as part of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference held in Adelaide. Two of the three published papers resulting from the conference, by Heather Kerr and Simon Robb, discuss ficto-criticism in relation to postmodernism. Notably, these papers reference the definitions given by Jameson and Krauss that Muecke and King quote, or reference one of the other texts by King that addresses ficto-criticism. Similarly, Alison Bartlett in her 1993 paper titled “Other Stories: The Representation of History in Recent Fiction by Australian Women Writers” published by Southerly cites Muecke and King and quotes the same 1987 interview with Jameson (165). In the introduction to The Space Between: Australian Women Writing Fictocriticism published in 1998, Amanda Nettelbeck both cites the Jameson interview and refers to Krauss’ concept of paraliterature, saying that “[t]he connection between the fictocritical and the paraliterary made here is indebted to King’s essay” (15). Nettelbeck also uses postmodernism as the main theoretical reference in her introduction, limiting other possible framings (Flavell, 1999).7 Interestingly, many of the pieces of ficto-criticism in this anthology were passed on to co-editors Amanda Nettelbeck and Heather Kerr by Muecke and King when their own ficto-critical collection, to be called “The Morning After the Eighties” failed to reach publication (this was to be published by Wakefield Press in 1996).
This mapping of Australian scholarly writing on ficto-criticism shows that King and Muecke’s use of Jameson’s interview and Krauss’ notion of paraliterature has influenced the official early writings about ficto-criticism in this country. As Scott Brook has asserted, “it’s no secret FC [ficto-criticism] was first employed in Australia in Stephen Muecke and Noel King’s 1991 ABR essay-review” (2003: 10). The intersections with, and references to, postmodernism in their 1991 article has meant that at its official point of inception Australian ficto-criticism became associated with postmodernism, and seen as a new practice. One cannot discount the fact that ficto-critical writing looks very postmodern; thus, Muecke and King’s use of postmodernism is a very logical move. However, the prominence of the ABR paper and the prevalence of postmodern references reduce the multiplicity of ficto-critical offerings and detract from ficto-critical concerns not immediately related to common perceptions of postmodernism.
Muecke and King, therefore, appear responsible for the wide spread employment of “ficto-criticism” to describe Australian creative-critical texts. Despite the similarities between ficto-criticism and paraliterature, and despite the fact that King seems to use the two terms interchangeably, ultimately they adopt ficto-criticism as the preferred label. From this point, ficto-criticism develops it currency in Australian literary and cultural terms. However, ficto-criticism (the term) was already in use pre-1991 in Canada where the interview with Jameson was published. In fact, it is not Jameson who first used it in the 1987 interview that Muecke and King cite. Instead, it is his interviewer Canadian Andrea Ward who first uses the term in her question to him (indeed, in the original published and complete version of the interview “ficto-criticism” appears in quotation marks).
As suggested above, the references in the published ficto-critical discourse in Australia encourage a reading that not only is the term Muecke and King’s invention but also that postmodernism has heavily influenced the emergence of ficto-criticism. As discussed in “On Ficto-criticism” Muecke and King cite the above mentioned 1987 interview with Jameson where the latter states that there has been a flowing together of theory and criticism. However, what Muecke and King fail to make explicit to their readers is that the term is actually used in the published interview with Jameson. Importantly, the citation from Jameson that they reproduce leaves out the sentence “Ficto-criticism’ makes a lot of sense to me” (9). In fact, this sentence precedes the section they quote. The complete section on “ficto-criticism” from the original interview of Jameson (FJ) by Ward (AW) reads as follows:
AW: Do you think that the nature of ‘ficto-criticism’ is successful in undermining the ‘corrective’ power of criticism?FJ: ‘Ficto-criticism’ makes a lot of sense to me. It is very clear that there has been a flowing together of theory and criticism… (Ward, 9)
By neglecting to include the sentence where Jameson uses the term prior to describing what creative-criticism might be Muecke and King’s paper implies that the term is their own. Unless you read the original interview with Jameson it appears that Jameson is quoted to affirm Muecke and King’s conceptualisation of a new practice that they have identified.
Contrary to the above reading, the term actually originates from a cultural critic based in Toronto named Jeanne Randolph. Indeed, the Jameson interview that Muecke and King quote from was published in Impulse, a visual arts journal based in Toronto. As demonstrated in the citation above, it is the interviewer Andrea Ward who introduces the term rather than Jameson. Ward’s familiarity with ficto-criticism can be explained by the fact that she was a student at the Ontario Centre for Arts (OCA), where Randolph was a teacher, and that several years prior to Ward’s interview with Jameson Randolph’s writing on local visual arts had already been described as ficto-critical. Put another way, the term was already in circulation in Canada and Jameson was merely responding to a question that made reference to it.8 In her interview Ward also leads the discussion toward conceptualising ficto-criticism as an attempt to address what she describes as the corrective power of criticism.
The genealogy of the term is significant as it explicates the questions raised in this paper around the politics of ficto-criticism. Furthermore, it illustrates that whilst ficto-criticism has been represented as a radical practice that challenges the power of academic writing to represent and interpret the world it is not automatically antithetical to the power relations established in traditional academic writing. In fact, the micro-politics of individual ficto-criticial texts must be explored to determine who and what is put at risk by ficto-criticism. A closer look at Randolph’s writing illustrates that her work—often difficult and discontinuous—is imbued by a different political energy to that of the “ficto-criticism” that emerged in Australia under Muecke and King’s ABR article.
Randolph is a psychiatrist and cultural theorist who had been writing ficto-criticism on the visual arts in Canada since the late 1970s. Her ficto-critique has as its main target the binary structures that inform the mainstays of critical writing; her work constitutes an attack on authority, judgement, and legitimacy. As Randolph states:
My entire writing production has been to argue against the rhetoric propelled by setting up dualities (binary thinking) in which topics being explored are analysed by perpetuating categories explicitly or implicitly, such as “bad" vs “good,” "authentic” vs “phoney,” indeed “nature” vs “culture.” (qutd. in McGregor 55).
Two collections of Randolph’s writings illustrate her commitment to unravelling binary systems: Psychoanalysis and Synchronized Swimming (1991) and Symbolization and its Discontents (1997), both published by the Toronto-based artists’ collective YYZ Books. More recently Randolph has also published with YYZ Books Why Stoics Box: Essays on Art and Society (2003) and Ethics of Luxury: Materialism and Imagination (2007). These texts contain many examples of ficto-criticism in the characteristic style of Randolph. With titles such as “Truth Disguised as Lie,” “The Predicament of Meaning” and “Sleepy Time Tales,” her ficto-critical works are playful, creative critical texts that engage so subjectively with the artwork in question that they make a mockery of normative art criticism, and indeed any form of critical, interpretative writing. Randolph does not just combine elements of fiction and non-fiction, such as autobiographical criticism and experimental writing but also breaks the rules of citation and sense. Randolph’s highly provocative work is located on the extreme edge of ficto-critical discourse for breaking down traditional critical writing into virtual nonsense. For example, one critic has described her writing as ambiguous, wilfully duplicitous and often difficult to decipher, arguing “one is forced [when reading her work] to settle for guesses” (McGregor 56).9
As a psychiatrist Randolph developed her ficto-critical theory of writing on the visual arts based on the psychoanalytic object relations theories of D.W. Winnicott, particularly his book Playing and Reality. Although Randolph writes on the visual arts her concerns relating to the tradition of modernist art criticism echo the concerns of the literary and cultural critics, as well as fiction writers, who write performatively and self-reflexively between fiction and non-fiction. Her affirmation of a ficto-critical practice, outlined in her paper “The Amenable Object” and first published in the Toronto art journal Vanguard in 1983, interrogates Freud’s conceptualisation of “Art-as-Neurosis.” Instead of a Freudian understanding of art as a symptom in need of an interpretative cure (according to Randolph’s reading of Winnicott) art is a mix of both subjective and objective experiential responses (30). Randolph argues that Winnicott’s conceptualisation of art “raises the possibility that in art it is the ambiguity between the objective and subjective that gives an artwork a unique psychological validity” (26). Instead of the art object as a symptom of neurosis, that is a sublimated communication from the artist’s unconscious, the creative impulse is an act of play: an “adaptive relationship with the mysterious world” (30). Obviously the object of this adaptive relationship does not remain static but changes depending on, firstly, its context and, secondly, the subjective experience of both the producer and viewer of the artwork. It is in this ambiguous space between the objective and the subjective that the art critic might imagine a mode of writing about art as a way to link the intellect with the senses. As Randolph suggests, “Like the soles of the feet curved gently upon the contours of the brow, the intellect must be limbered until it can reach around to meet the heart, gut and spleen” (21). The viewer’s subjectivity, therefore, comes into play as the artwork becomes the amenable object, informed and in a sense reproduced by the viewer’s experience. Randolph describes this process as “systematic subjectivity.” Here both the viewer and artist interact subjectively with the artwork. As the following quote from Randolph’s “Amenable Object” illustrates, the subjectivity she imagines is not fixed, nor is the meaning of the artwork. Subsequently it cannot be limited by one interpretative key:
Reshaping Winnicott’s theory to the aims of art criticism allows a way to interact with the artwork as an intentional revelation of the artist’s version of experience, intentionality that need neither be explicit or disguised. Unlike art-as-neurosis, this is not a theoretical model of an artwork from the purportedly objective view of someone who wants to study how the artist creates it. This is a view of the art object once the artist has left it in public (31).
Randolph’s “The Amenable Object” works as her ficto-critical “manifesto.” Randolph, however, does not use the term here and although from the late 1970s she had been writing art criticism in the style of ficto-criticism, it was not until the early 1980s that the term appears in print applied to her work. In 1986 Bruce Grenville, in a discussion of art criticism in Canada, published an article that argues for an alternative critical practice: ficto-criticism. In it he identifies Randolph’s work as an example of writing that perverts traditional art criticism. According to Grenville:
We can no longer support the notion of art criticism as an authoritative text which reveals the meaning and establishes the legitimacy of an artwork to a submissive audience. Nor can we look to criticism as a qualitative judgement handed down from above. Instead, it must be recognised as a form of speculative fiction (15).
Grenville goes on to discuss Randolph’s work, arguing that her inclusion of a number of critical voices breaks down the dominant authoritative critical voice. He adds that her self-reflexive proposition that her writing is fiction undermines any claim to authority or legitimation. Grenville further argues, “she has developed a form of writing which might be best described as ‘ficto-criticism’” (“Art Criticism in Canada” 15).10 In a later article Grenville revisits Randolph’s ficto-criticism stating that it “offers the clearest instance of an intervention into modernist critical practice” (1993: 56).
Difficult to describe, Randolph’s ficto-criticism often appears as collage, sometimes with personal reference but most often it is confronting and confusing leaving the reader grappling with meaning. One text, which gives an indication of the polyvalent nature of her work, is the piece “Mincemeat—A Recipe for Disaster.” Originally published as the introductory essay for an exhibition titled “Verge: Sheila Ayearst” in 1990, “Mincemeat” can be read as a critique of traditional (art) criticism. Instead of a key to the works on display—a framework or reference point for the viewer—Randolph inverts and parodies the expert art critic’s role by presenting us with a detailed recipe for mincemeat. On the one had, she diminishes or reduces the act of art criticism to the feminised and relatively trivial task of preparing the Christmas meal. On the other hand, she reclaims its importance by appropriating the voice of an expert, in this case the voice of the food historian by including historical, folkloric and popular information on the ingredients and the dish itself. This kind of double-sided-ness or ambiguity is common throughout “Mincemeat” and other ficto-critical works by Randolph. By using the (pompous) tone of the expert’s voice, yet peppering the text with untruths or fictions, the mincemeat recipe challenges traditional art criticism that dissects the work to reveal its secrets for the passive and uniformed viewing audience. There is no discussion here on the compositional meaning of Ayearst’s brush strokes, nor are there any historical references to earlier works of art as a frame. Instead the reader of this exhibition gets a bizarre cooking lesson:
Combine a quarter pound of each of dried, candied, chopped citron, orange and lemon peel. Combining ingredients and submitting them to culinary technique is a venture that emboldens the cook, for she savours the process of accidents and cunning from which results the concoction that, when presented to the dinner guests, confounds the distinction between material and immaterial, between physical sensation and figurative effect. There exists of course no recipe the realization of which does not permit additions or substitutions of ingredients to heighten or perturb either the nutritive or evocative power of the dish. Accordingly, you may wish herein to substitute the candied kumquat for the citron. Kumquats once grew profusely along the sand dunes of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. (Psychoanalysis and Synchronized Swimming 109).
This passage—in the context of an exhibition catalogue—highlights the ficto-critical aspect of Randolph’s work. There are enough elements and terms in “Mincemeat” that suggest it is about the artwork and the production of art, such as “material and immaterial” and “figurative.” At the same time it is a confusing treatise on the ingredients and recipe for mincemeat, full of contradictions. For example, the authoritative and expert tone of the narrator is undermined by statements such as the one referring to kumquats growing “along the sand dunes of Spain’s Mediterranean coast.” Despite the tone and language use, which implies the authority of knowledge, one begins to wonder what kind of citrus would be able to survive in the salty dry conditions of sand dunes. The ficto-critical aspects of the piece are evoked through the tension between the assertions made and their unlikely relation to fact. Similarly, the subtitle “A Recipe for Disaster” suggests that to provide “the” reading of the artwork as a key for the viewer will diminish the experience and produce “mincemeat” of Ayearst’s work.
Ironically, thus, in the context of the exhibition catalogue readers expecting traditional criticism find themselves unsettled by a very traditional recipe. Faced with this creative and slippery work in a catalogue that accompanies a visual arts exhibition, readers also find themselves confronted by a text as equally creative and indeterminate as the collection of images that make up the exhibition. There is no traditional authoritative interpretative gesture to shed meaning and light. Nor is there any attempt to provide one. Here, ficto-criticism can be seen to break down the boundaries between science and art and between literature and criticism. Randolph has herself spoken of viewing her ficto-criticism as a practice parallel with the artwork she writes in response to. According to Grenville in the introduction to Psychoanalysis and Synchronized Swimming:
From theory to criticism, to fiction and ficto-criticism, Randolph questions the nature of critical practice within the Canadian art community. She challenges the conventions of critical writing by undermining its claims to authority, scientific objectivity, and the Real. In doing so, she disrupts the traditional representation of the art object and its claims to unity and authenticity. Through a conflation of psychoanalysis, art criticism, fictional literature, critical theory, the politics of representation and the ethics of interpretation, Randolph constructs a tenable counter-narrative for contemporary critical practice. (12)
Randolph’s alternative critical practice that inspired “ficto-criticism” appears, therefore, concerned with challenging the project of traditional interpretative criticism and its claim to truth. If Grenville is right, Randolph’s art criticism encourages a more open and ethical relationship to the subject of its attention by allowing for more than one reading of an artwork and—more importantly—undermining the authority of the art critic. Given the difficulty of her work (in terms of both genre and style), it is reasonable to suggest that her absence from the story of Australian ficto-criticism is due, at least in part, to her refusal of categories. She herself did not identify her work, nor does she identify herself as part of a movement.
As Randolph’s invisibility from Australian ficto-critical discourse suggests, practicing ficto-criticism without naming, theorising and critiquing it can mean a writer’s exclusion from the critical literature. The examples I introduce below illustrate other instances in which the term has been employed, and begin to display the multiplicity of ficto-critical practice. As I show, the deployment of the term continues to reflect an emphasis on the way in which ficto-criticism questions the authority and hegemonic role of the traditional critic or expert. Significantly, even Muecke’s own ficto-critical writing demonstrates a concern with the power invested in the critical act. No Road, for example, “enacts a multi-layered critique of the traditional academic essay, by presenting itself as an alternative mode of cultural critique” (Flavell, 1998: 197). If the creative reinvention of, and subsequent challenge to, criticism is indeed the project of ficto-criticism—and I argue it is—then it must constantly and self-consciously undermine the will to power of the traditional critical act. The references in the literature to Muecke and King’s early paper on ficto-criticism and their subsequent position in relation to Australian ficto-criticism is thus in conflict with ficto-critical practice, which wishes to undermine mastery and authority. Furthermore, their postmodern frame for ficto-criticism detracts from the political-ethical intention implied by ficto-critical works.
After the initial small flurry of publications in the early to mid-eighties in printed form, the introduction of the internet saw a number of electronic texts published that addressed ficto-criticism. These references to ficto-criticism begin to multiply the applications of the term in Australia. For example, electronic journals like antimony have called for ficto-criticism submissions in the past, as has the South Australian based multimedia centre Ngapartji. Over the years several online listings of journals accepting ficto-criticism could be found on the internet (antithesis, dotlit and Senses of Cinema). University handbooks also list ficto-criticism, both Monash and the University of Tasmania have offered courses on ficto-criticism in the past, and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has a unit on ficto-criticism listed in its 2009 Handbook. Significantly, at the University of Tasmania ficto-criticism is described (in their unit HEA 435) as hybrid (part critical, part creative) postmodern writing that is aiding the reformation of literary and cultural studies by exploring “the crucial questions of subjectivity, objectivity, value and cultural politics” (Web Ferret, 15 May 1999). Macquarie University’s Women’s Studies department similarly offered a course that dealt with ficto-criticism. In their 1999 topic in Women’s Studies, the seminar titled “Writing Indigeneity: Voice, Genre, Style” considered “the issues of marginality, race, gender, identity politics, questions of indigeneity, community and culture, and ways of speaking” (Hotbot, 11 Dec. 2000). In 2001 the School of Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne offered as part of their Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Criticism, a course on “New Critical Practices.” Focusing specifically on ficto-criticism, described as an emerging practice, this course examined: “The act of critical writing as a creative endeavour . . . This subject considers the use of autobiography in criticism and imaginative responses to the critical object.” There are several other references to Australian university courses to be found on the internet, but this sample gives an idea of the varying ways in which the term is employed in Australian academic circles: primarily a critical act that incorporates creative effects. Very recently ficto-criticism has appeared in Wikipedia and defined as: “a postmodern, experimental often feminist style of writing” (Google, 24 Feb. 2009). As the references to the use of the word cited above indicate, ficto-criticism appears to have just as much to do with art criticism, postcolonial discourse, feminism, identity politics and marginality, as it might have to do with postmodernism. Australian ficto-criticism thus begins to broaden into a diverse field with influences and connections beyond those provided by what has become the sanctioned discourse. The more risks texts take in defying conventions the more likely they are to go undiscovered by the mainstream.
In 1988, three years before the publication of Muecke and King’s article, Alexandra Pitsis submitted her Masters thesis at UTS, describing it as ficto-critical. Drawing on what she describes as “the ficto-critical work of writers such as Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous,” Pitsis creates her own ficto-criticism. Writing after the 1987 interview with Jameson, it is likely that as a student of UTS where Muecke was employed Pitsis came to the term through the local university research culture. What is interesting is her different theoretical framing of ficto-criticism—employing the work of the “French feminists”—in a thesis concerned with opening “up general textual arguments about women’s writing, and women’s relation to language in general.” Pitsis’ own personal experience makes up much of her thesis material, which is concerned with:
the ways an individual functions within an educational institution and other institutions, considering certain ‘differences’ that set up conflicts, problematics and contradictions.The ‘differences’ inherent in being a woman, coming from a non-Anglo background and having lived a relatively ‘disadvantaged’ life, are also explored in the manner in which these are carried through into the various realms of ‘life’ and it institutions. (Pitsis i)
By including her own personal stories in creative form, Pitsis destablises academic writing and by extension the institution of the academy:
This writing, locked in private discourse, banished from the academic realm, is like an act of political resistance in that it reveals its grief at the multiple positions of not only the feminine but of all other terms like madness, ethnicity and poverty. It is a striking-out… (Pitsis 22)
Her “striking-out” is political and motivated by a desire to have her experience as a Greek-Australian woman included in the academy: “She has to be made to make any sort of space for herself, and at the same time step back into the space designated for her, and to, grapple with that ‘reason’ that exists to exclude her” (Pitsis 24). She states, “In a way, my project is to bring a sort of writing to where it previously couldn’t exist or function” (36). While Pitsis’ thesis demonstrates the aesthetic markers of postmodernism, such as pastiche, her text is not consistent with the popular conception of postmodernism. Instead it is a highly political piece of writing from someone who is at the margin. Her textual style is, in fact, her subject in the sense that its hybrid personal creative mode reflects her political intent: the form is the argument. The ficto-criticism evoked by Pitsis is one that includes the excesses ghosting the edges of the academic essay (such as fiction, poetry, personal detail, memory, and bodily experience). It challenges authority as much as it does generic hierarchies and divisions on which the canons of knowledge are established.
Like Randolph’s work Pitsis’ is therefore—from a traditional perspective—self-indulgent, discontinuous, and lacking credibility. Representing the characteristics aligned with the feminine—defined through their opposition to the masculine values of objectivity, rigour, disciplinarity and rationality—Pitsis’ text reveals the ideological imperatives inherent in the traditional academic essay as neutral frame. Her feminist ficto-critical act demonstrates an earlier use of the term in Australia than Muecke and King’s 1991 reference. It also emphasises the political intent of the form when employed as a strategic act by those on the margin. As Brewster has argued, ficto-criticism is “not primarily a postmodern ‘fascination with surfaces’” (94). Furthermore, Anna Gibbs in a 1997 article published in TEXT not only links ficto-criticism clearly with feminism, she also makes a connection between Australian ficto-criticism and Canada. In “Bodies of Words: Feminism and Fictocriticism”—explanation and demonstration she states:
There’s a strange forgetfulness around the term fictocriticism as it’s used in Australia now—for fictocriticism made its appearance here in the writing of (mostly non-academic) 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 onward. (1)
Randolph and Pitsis’ ficto-criticism thus become demonstrable examples of women’s work being absent from the story of ficto-criticism in Australia. Through their refusal of the conventions of academy, both have been overlooked.
This paper, through an exploration of the term’s adoption in Australia, argued that ficto-criticism is a complex practice and category. Rather than mere surface play ficto-criticism is a political form that seeks to unlearn its authority and privilege as the beginning of a process towards developing an ethical relationship with the other. For the author, ficto-criticism thus implies risk since it transgresses the rules of both mainstream academic and creative writing through the incursion of generic markers belonging to the other. As the arrival of “ficto-criticism” in Australia reveals, however, the risks are great for ficto-critical practitioners like Randolph and Pitsis whose work is highly transgressive and disruptive. They risk exclusion from the critical literature. In the words of Caesar in Conspiring with Forms: Life in Academic Texts, “What is vital, raw, or disaffected never gets out because it’s not allowed to count for knowledge” (xii). Randolph and Pitsis’ lack of presence in the discourse of Australian ficto-criticism illustrates the incompatibility of experimental writing practices engaged in undermining authority, competency and rigour in the academy. Yet “ficto-criticism” is not necessarily excluded from the academy. Therefore, the individual micro-politics of ficto-critical texts must be engaged with to determine how well the text dissolves its authority and whether the self is ultimately put at risk. If one is serious about challenging the power and authority of the hegemonic critical paradigm it is then necessary to move beyond reflecting on one’s relation to the other, arguing for multiplicity, transgression or situated knowledges and claiming an identification with the margin. In order to break both with consensus and the reliance on the control of difference and excess, it is imperative, therefore, that the ficto-critic risks the individuated and masterful self associated with traditional academic research and writing.
1. See the debate in TEXT, specifically Muecke’s letter to the Editor in 4.1, 2000. He asks: “Anyone know what happened to ‘fictocriticism; as a name for this [Creative Non Fiction] kind of writing; would have thought it was a candidate, given it is an Australian label . . . “. For an outline of creative non fiction from an Australian context see the interview by Donna Lee Brien with Lee Gutkind published in TEXT 4.1, 2000.
2. See Rosalind Krauss’ The Optical Unconscious (1993) as an example of paraliterature. Krauss mixes theory, personal detail and critical insight in this book, which address the tradition of modernist art criticism and its role in limiting what is constituted modern art.
4. Some ficto-criticism can, however, be just as difficult and dense as the work of Joyce and Faulkner. This is particularly so for those readers not familiar with academic language and references. Many reviews of ficto-critical texts critique them for being filled with jargon, “sometime sacrificing clarity.” See Kristen Henry’s review of W/EDGE in TEXT, April 1997.
6. Christopher Hill had difficultly finding references to Australian ficto-criticism. For example, in his paper “On Ficto-Criticism: A Reading for a Writers Festival” [sic] (1997). Hill, in this paper, makes a reference to a discussion on ficto-criticism appearing on a UTS men’s toilet wall where Muecke and King’s 1991 paper is referenced (1997: 15).
7. For example, Nettelbeck says in the introduction to The Space Between: Women Writing Fictocriticism, “It is here, at the intersection of literature and postmodernism, that fictocriticism appears as an increasingly familiar form” (1998: 3).
8. Aritha van Herk uses the term ficto-criticism to describe her work. Van Herk, in a personal interview in 1999, identified that she came to the term after finding reference to it in an art magazine. It seems likely that Randolph was the source of the term given the number of references to her work and the term and that she writes on art.
9. See also Gary Ditchburn’s 1993 MA thesis “The Search for Criteria in Theory-Based Criticism,” presented at York University, Ontario. Ditchburn dedicates much of his thesis to attacking and undermining Randolph’s ficto-critical practice, which he aligns with poststructuralism. He describes her work as slack, uncritical (184), dogmatic and failing to measure up to his criteria for good criticism (1993: v).
10. The second reference to ficto-criticism is in Gaile McGregor’s review of several new Canadian publications title “The Mainstreaming of Postmodernism: A Status Report on the ‘New’ Scholarship in Canada.” Published in 1989 in The Journal of Canadian Studies this lengthy article reviewed two new visual arts journals, Vanguard and Parachute. Under the subheading “Artwriting” McGregor discusses Randolph’s work. She says “Randolph’s most interesting contribution . . . is her experimentation with a genre she calls ficto-criticism” (1989: 152).
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