Iceberg Theory: rules on style from the New Writing for the Real Australia Manifesto

Nic Low

After long weeks of open-ended writing, I crave concrete tasks. Out at my house in the national park north of Castlemaine, if a chapter ending’s giving me grief I might head into the garden of an evening to pick slugs off the basil. If I can’t pin down a character or find the rhythm for my prose, I might take a break and dig a hole. It’s always a purposeful hole – a flat area for a new watertank; stairs up to the outside toilet – but the digging is really the point. It gives a sense of momentum I can take back to the page: tangible results, clear rules.

So when I read the requirements on style in the New Writing for the Real Australia manifesto found in the archives of the State Library of Victoria, I wondered about the headspace of people who’d try to turn writing itself into a set of rules. Intuitively, I dislike the idea that what we do can conform to a formula, but then, why has the Hero’s Journey been so influential? What would it be like to write to a clear set of rules that’ll apparently give tangible results? If anyone’d like to find out in an Australian context, here are a few of New Writing’s best suggestions, which I’ve extracted into bullet points.

  • Writing of the real Australia means resisting extravagances of language, tricks of plot and wild leaps of imagination. Comedy and melodrama are the resort of the talentless and immature.
  • It is best to structure your work around one strong symbolic image, and these symbols work best if ambiguous. A diamond can wed, and it can be sold. Other fine symbols used to good effect are large old gum trees (grow or be cut down), rivers (flow or dry up), dresses (worn or taken off), shovels (excavate or fill in holes), and rope (tie up or cut loose).

  • Action may be retrospective or prospective, but rarely on the page. Hint, do not tell, and never show. Many successful stories treat with secrets or estranged family or past hurt. These plots will serve for many more if details are left indistinct.

  • Remember that small moments reveal large truths. The focus of good stories is usually the turning point in the relationship between a man and a woman, and a raised eyebrow or hunched shoulder signals meaning far better than anything a person could say or do.

  • An excellent guide is the iceberg theory of Ernest Hemingway, where 10% of a story is visible on the page, and 90% of the story is empty sea. Do not insult your reader with more.

  • If, in your first scene, there is a loaded gun on the wall, it should stay there. But perhaps the characters can come to feel differently about it over time.

The point about Hemingway is telling, and ironic: the master of omission seems to be a major influence, yet the writers of the manifesto leave nothing out. There are four and a half pages of dos and don’ts, down to which punctuation suits which genre (novels: avoid commas). I found the list fascinating, because again, it articulates plenty of things I’ve done in my own work.

Then we get to the part I like to think is the reason why New Writing the Real Australia was never published: some jarring assertions that real Australian writing is by, for and about white Australians. I shouldn’t be surprised, because the White Australia policy was the official position at that time, perhaps to the point where it was considered common-sense; and this kind of rhetoric feels increasingly common today. But it still grates. There are suggestions for the roles that ‘exotic types’ can play in stories, but the guts of the authors’ position seems to have come straight out of the Second World War:

We fought to keep the Jap from our shores. It does not need stating that we will fight to keep the Jap from the pages of our books.

Apparently it did need stating, though that sentiment never made it into print.

Who wrote it? The manuscript is signed ‘Emu and Dingo’. My thoughts initially went to the circle of friends and colleagues around the incredible Nettie Palmer, who championed a uniquely Australian aesthetic through the middle of the 20th century; or someone connected to the Jindyworobak movement, who argued a true Australian literature would come from Aboriginal history and myth (though not Aboriginal people themselves). But their movements were different, and so far no likely candidates have emerged. If anyone recognises the tone or turn of phrase, I’d be keen to hear. I’m hoping a thorough reading of the archive from around the same period will turn up more by the same authors – they must have submitted other work.

That said, we do have one lead, and it comes from our efforts to analyse the bulk of the archival material. We’re trialling scanning the stacks of typed pages using auto-feed copiers, then using OCR software to convert it to searcheable text. Then we run heuristic analysis for key terms, themes and ideas to build a kind of weighted index. Once that’s done we’ll have a pretty good idea of what and who never made it into print. We’ll be doing a call-out for volunteers to help with scanning, so keep an eye on the Southerly twitter feed for that.

But back to that lead. So far, the one and only potential reference to the manifesto we’ve uncovered came when researching algorhythms to analyse the archival material. James Meehan, who was experimenting with computer systems that could generate stories, presented his early work called TAIL-SPIN at the Fifth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence at MIT in 1977. He said that one of the guiding principles in his story-telling AI was that “action can be prospective or retrospective, but rarely on the page.” It could be coincidence, but it’s almost word-for-word from the manifesto. Meehan currently works at Google, so I’m trying to track him down to find out where he got the idea. By the end of the month we’ll have provisional analysis of a good chunk of the archive, and hopefully a response from Meehan. I’ll let you know once we find out more.

(As an aside, other Australian literary manifestos are coming out of the woodwork in response to these posts. It seems manifestos are not entirely the rare birds I’d thought. Here’s one that novelist and poet Adam Ford penned 15 or so years ago: neopulp. I’ll gather up a few of the others and post them next week.)

'Icebergs' by Sheep "R"Us / Flickr.
‘Icebergs’ by Sheep “R”Us / Flickr.