Jen Webb And Jordan Williams
Editorial: Writing (Is, And Is Not) Research
This is the first time that an AAWP conference has generated refereed proceedings, but it will not be the last: not in the brave new world of research quality assessment, and not given the status of writing and other creative disciplines. Writing, painting, filmmaking, performance, music and all the art siblings are pushing twenty years old, in university terms (dating it from the Strand Report), and are almost at the point of attaining our majority. This adult status is beginning to manifest in the university community: we might still be also-rans from some perspectives, but increasingly the creative disciplines are becoming legitimate members of the academy. We pay our way; we attract students; we serve on committees; we craft and maintain links with the external community. And now we are producing research that is recognised by DEST and the broader research environment, as evidenced by the (planned) RQF Panel 13.
This, the and is papers: proceedings of the 12th conference of the AAWP, is a marvellous roadmap of current research in the discipline. Papers by first year research students, research professors and everyone in between present the sorts of issues and concerns that are driving our research practice at the moment. And in most cases, that research practice is intimately connected with the writers’ creative practice. Again and again, contributors to these proceedings show the intertwining of writing and thought, the material practice of making a work and the abstract practice of research, analysis, critique and synthesis.
What sorts of knowledge are being generated by this work? Refinement of
the relationship between fiction and nonfiction. Refinement of understandings of the identity of the writer. Contribution to the issue of ethics in practice and thought. Exemplification of the work of writing in the social world. Incursions into currently under-researched fields or new modes of practice. Incursions into fields not much researched by writers, previously. And ongoing work on well-established fields, including pedagogies, voice and genres.
The Truth Of Fiction
What is evident to us as editors is the continued importance – signalled in other cultural and literary venues, as well as earlier AAWP conferences and issues ofTEXT – of the balance between what we might call ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’. Writers have been wrestling with this for as long as people have been writing (I give you Aristotle; I give you the many writers of the Old Testament), but there has not yet been, and probably never will be, a definite answer. How much imagination is needed to animate the bald facts (‘facts’) of history? How much dilutes the actuality to the point where it is no longer capable of sustaining relevance? What licence does a writer have to take an historical person or event, and render it as story?
Fiction does, of course, have its truth, as do more overtly ‘truthful’ texts like newspaper articles, or Important Works of history and science. But the conditions and contexts in which each form means truth, or is read as truth, vary considerably. This does not prevent writers and readers from seeking it out, as Nietzsche knows:
The will to truth, which is still going to tempt us to many a hazardous enterprise; that celebrated veracity of which all philosophers have hitherto spoken with reverence: what questions this will to truth has already set before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions! (Nietzsche 1990: 465)
Truth is wicked? Yes, perhaps. There is nothing innocent, neutral or natural about ‘truth’ or the imperative to find, assert and display it. There is always more to truth that meets the eye, and more at stake. Fiction or history, poem or lab report: their veracity has been contended and critiqued in many places, and in many ways, through the history of philosophy, or critical thinking.
This is a topic taken up and teased out by Michel de Certeau, who insists that truth is an effect of practice, and that even such ordered and organised fields as science and historiography are predicated on fictionality, and use fictional attitudes, approaches and techniques – the what if? move – when articulating inventiveness and experiment. Every piece of writing, Certeau argues, whether scientific or speculative, is a representation of reality and not reality itself (Certeau 1986: 201). This is easy to see in the novel form, but it is also evident in genres like historical narrative or life writing that, like fiction, use narrative devices. Such writings must take a moment of reality, and organise it so that it will be as convincing as possible; so it will seduce its readers by being engaging and authoritative; so it can present as real and reliable because of the voice of the narrator (fiction), or the credentials of the writer (nonfiction). The difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘made-up’ is thus qualitative, not quantitative, ideological rather than actual. All texts are, to some extent, story; each story starts somewhere, in a time and place – that is to say, a context; and no story is capable of telling the truth, the whole truth and only the truth. A number of the writers in these proceedings tease this out.
The Ethics Of Writing
Of course it is too simple to say ‘everything is produced, therefore anything goes’. Because the question of ethics must be addressed: if a writer takes something that, from however limited a perspective, counts as ‘truth’, is it ethical to recast it so that is becomes a very different sort of truth? This problem for writers and writing re-emerges year after year at AAWP conferences, in submissions to TEXT, and in our cousin journals and articles overseas; and it is the topic of several of the papers in these proceedings. What is the point of writing if it has no impact? – a question the Australian government is also asking, as it gears up for this country’s first Research Quality Framework assessment. It is a question with as long a lineage as the fiction/nonfiction one above, and with as little likelihood of achieving a final answer. But it is worth asking: given the complexities and ambiguities of both language and being, why write?
For Milan Kundera the answer is clear when fiction is the work being made, because in his eyes fiction is an ethical response to the way the world is. He wrote, ‘The novel’s raison d’etre is to keep “the world of life” under a permanent light and to protect us from “the forgetting of being”’ (1988: 17). Only a novel that demanded attention and engagement could have this outcome, I daresay; but it is something to which all writers can aspire. It is, after all, the ‘world of life’ that we observe, frame, craft and narrate in our works; why not take that skill and effort and put it to the work of preventing ‘the forgetting of being’? Several of the contributors to this volume do just this: either by writing a moment of contemporary (or ancient) history to put an event or pattern under a permanent light, or by elucidating this practice in other people’s writing.
The papers in these proceedings act in some ways as contributors to knowledge, in some ways as models of creative research practice, and in some ways as calls to writer/teachers/scholars to broaden their horizons as the same time as they refine their perspective. It is encouraging to see the breadth and depth of research, and to see the quality of thinking and writing that lies behind these finished papers. The conference at which these and other papers are presented represent a moment in the field of writing in higher education institutions; and the day after the conference, the country goes to the polls to elect our next government. Whoever wins the election, and whatever difference that makes to teaching and research, we are confident that the energy, rigour and enthusiasm manifested in these papers will continue to inform our professional and our discipline; and we look forward to future proceedings and other research outcomes from our colleagues in the field.