from the editor's desk

Andrew Sutherland

Andrew Sutherland: gimmicks & incursions

With the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with KSP Writers CentreWesterly delivered our third Writers’ Development Program in 2018.

Four talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, and look forward to their inclusion in our upcoming print issue.

For an optimal blog experience, please listen to this while reading:

Not too long ago, one of my works was described as ‘gimmicky’ (which: fair). And I considered that I might use this reflection blog to write something passive-aggressive about that—because, frankly, that sounds like the kind of thing I would do. But then I remembered that during my stay at the KSP Writers Centre (which was funded by Westerly as part of this Writers’ Development Program—holla at you, Westerly), I spent more time trying to taking ‘horror movie-style’ selfies and shots of the grounds than I spent actually writing. Exhibit A:

So there’s that to consider.

Gimmick has the feel of a dirty word, and its synonyms—stunt (yuck!), contrivance (yuck squared!), trick (the horror!)—seem equally undesirable. (Fun fact about my poetry process: I do all my own stunts.) You gotta get a gimmick!, one character tells another in some American musical. A gimmick is a point of difference, but it’s showy, and cheap: different only for the sake of signalling difference. Gimmicks, by their form, reduce. A gimmick surveys the breadth of a craft, its content, its form, its personality, its identity, and reduces it down to a single performed action or concept. A great gimmick is irreducible. A great gimmick has already been reduced to zero.

Poetry is not gimmicky.

Authenticity is not gimmicky.

Serious lit has no room for cheap conceptual stunts, please.

Is there a connection between taking dumb pictures for my Instagram and the idea of process? What I mean is, does the production (and reproduction) of these images add any value? Horror cinema relies on the structured interaction of gimmicks. Horror is a great reducer: taking the most mysterious and troubling concepts and distilling them into gory sequences, demonic possessions, breathlessly-marketed twists. It’s also often considered to be, well, a little bit stupid. Shouldn’t I have spent that time writing the next sunburnt Australiana masterpiece? (Don’t worry, someone out there is onto it.) Shouldn’t I be trying to do something—you know—objectively good?

I guess I take my gimmicks like I take my irony: super seriously. And for a genre so filled with the heaving breasts and bloody deaths of young women, horror somehow still feels like one of the Queerest mass-consumed narratives out there. For all its artlessness, the seemingly simplistic actions feel to me like they gesture towards a density more complex than the highest of high art. Someone much smarter than me has already written some really cool work on Queer irony and horror cinema (see Benshoff & Griffin; Fox). And although I’m loathe to drop the C-word after suffering through the recent Met Gala, I guess it all leads back to Camp.

You know, often it seems to me that the more I continue fucking other men, the more I lose sight of the line between my earnestness and my irony. To be honest, I don’t think I even really know what irony actually means (and I’m not going to sit here and wait for someone to explain it to me now.) And sometimes I wonder, who drew all these lines between things, anyway? Earnestness. Irony. Gimmickery. Authenticity. Affect? Performance? High art.Who divided each from each other? It was probably dead heterosexuals. I bet you a million dollars it was dead heterosexuals who decided that authenticity and performativity ought to be mutually exclusive concepts. HEY WESTERLY BLOG READERS, YOU OWE ME A MILLION DOLLARS.

As a side note, I find it extremely irritating when I hear cis heterosexual women describe something (me, even), in that fabulously dismissive tone, as Camp. As if they know what it means. Because the trouble with making work to a frame (including, shall we say, the work of living)… Scratch that, the trouble with being gay on display is that, sometimes, all a gal wants is to consume the gimmick and not have to stick around for the dense and difficult strategy of living that lives behind it. They never learned how to unfold a concept. (For the record, I’m sure I’d find this just as irritating from a heterosexual man. It’s just that, at this stage in my life, and please respect my choices on this, I’m not sure I’m willing to acknowledge that I’ve met any heterosexual men.)

Sometimes I think, how could anyone try to write seriously about their creative practice? I know I talk about process a lot, but I always shudder a little bit while I do. I like to think of process the way I think of Linda Blair spider-crawling down a staircase. I cross my fingers for a product that spews out like pea soup. And it’s not that I’m anti-discourse or anti-criticality, but I do constantly feel the urge to resist explanation; categorisation. Oh, yes—resistance. Writing anything cogent about my creative practice for this blog is like blood from a (demonically possessed) stone. Cheap displays of identity? Even less cogent (and equally horrific). My theatre practice is overly academic, I try to find performativity in the production of poetry (though not, to be clear, performance poetry), my prose swerves too poetic, and my academia never gets done. Lately, I’ve found myself more moved by memes than by masterpieces. And surely by now, applying literary criticism to a performative praxis (even if said practice is ‘literary’ or textual in form) is like applying lipstick to a hamster. That’s right, it’s downright unethical. But if I had to define some kind of aesthetic goal for my practice, it might be high art B movie. (Maybe even a B minus.)

At this point in my reflection blog, I feel like I should probably say something about my mentor, Lucy Dougan. Nothing of particular relevance to this blog is springing to mind. Lucy is amazing, though. If Lucy Dougan referred to something as Camp I would shut up and accept that she knew what she was talking about. I also have a feeling (call it a Sixth Sense, if you will) that Lucy understands my vibe on horror. Although I’m starting to wonder how KSP Writer’s Centre might feel about the whole thing. Because perhaps it isn’t so flattering to an organisation that I spent three days on their premises trying to frame the grounds like Wolf Creek meets The Exorcist.

And then this one’s just a bunch of gifs:

(They weren’t even really there.)

I wrote, perhaps rather foolishly, at the beginning of 2018 that I wanted to spend the year only performing exorcisms in art. Looking back, I’ve probably only summoned more spectres into me. But I feel more comfortable calling out their—and my own—glorious ridiculousness. The low art potentiality of a creative practice, of Queerness, of becoming a failed scream queen at a deliciously unsupervised writer’s retreat. I find myself more and more unwilling to make judgments about quality, or authority, or what is worthwhile versus what is—shall we say—cheap. There is a deep ambivalence to be felt in the murky waters of process, and production, and publication; but perhaps it is a gleeful ambivalence, too. The work can be terrifying and Camp, authentically fake, critically dense and utterly daft—and also irreducible. Perhaps it can all fold back to zero. Perhaps it’s worth it just to get the gimmick. (The horror, the horror.)

Works Cited

Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin (eds.). Queer Cinema, The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Charlie Fox. This Young Monster. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.

Andrew is a writer and theatre practitioner working between Western Australia and Singapore. Theatre works include Poorly Drawn Shark (winner of the Blaz Award for New Writing 2019), Unveiling: Gay Sex for Endtimes, and Chrysanthemum Gate. His poetry and prose can be found in numerous publications including Overland, Visible Ink, Suburban Review, Muse/A, and ~Bosie.

Westerly thanks both the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund and KSP Writers Centre for their support of this program. 

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