Author tours are funny things, especially when unexpected. 12 months ago, I’d given up on getting Kingdom of the Wicked published. I’d run through three publishers. All had acquired cold feet for a range of reasons, some silly (‘you’re too controversial’) and some genuine (‘other authors will leave our list if we publish you’). I was living in the UK – having left both Senator Leyonhjelm’s employ and Australia after the 2016 election – consulting, copywriting, and writing columns for the Speccie. If I were known at all, it was as a Speccie house classical liberal, not as a Miles Franklin Award winner. Enter, stage left, Matt Rubinstein and Michael Wilkinson with an offer of publication. It’s all been a bit sudden. Walking past bookshops and seeing both my novels in display windows is frankly discombobulating.
As I said in my Weekend Australian piece – and if you haven’t read it, please do – the idea of a ‘Roman book’ has been rattling around my head for years. As far back as February 1996, I had a story in New Weekly (yes, they once published short fiction) which included characters and ideas present in Kingdom of the Wicked. Claudia and Pilate are there, as are Antony and Ben Yusuf, and the very beginnings of my alternative, industrialised Rome.
Kingdom of the Wicked asks what would have happened had Jesus emerged in a Roman Empire that has gone through an industrial revolution. How, I wondered, would we react to him if he turned up in a society more (or less) like the present? The answer was not one I liked much. I thought we’d mistake him for a terrorist. The novel is informed – even overshadowed – by the destruction of civil liberties and gross expansion of executive power occasioned by the War on Terror, a war now in the process of becoming war without end.
If there’s a key scene, it’s when one of the book’s best and most moral characters – an army doctor who nonetheless does his bit as torture supervisor (he’s there to keep victims alive) – leans over Judas Iscariot as he is tied to the waterboard and cut to pieces and says, ‘I’m sorry. This is…the State’s idea. The State’s idea’.
During my tour, Graeme Simsion – an Australian writer I admire – remarked to me that it was ‘always good to talk with someone who doesn’t belong to the writing monoculture’. And he’s right, you know. There is a writing monoculture, and it’s a shame. There’s an entire cottage industry of people who never talk to anyone outside their political ‘crowd’ as such. Reliable lefties get invitations to sundry literary festivals, while reliable righties get their books spruiked by the IPA. They publish with different houses – even in a small market like Australia – and talk to different publics. I’ve had it suggested to me that I can talk to more varied audiences than many Australian writers – that is, I can turn up to conferences like LibertyWorks or ALS Friedman but also have events at Gleebooks and Embiggen Books. Maybe there’s an upside to being Australian Literature’s Lone Classical Liberal.
So much of the industry is a closed shop, even for those ostensibly on your ‘side’. To put it another way, sometimes the most interesting and revealing thing is the invitations you don’t get. I’ve learnt that this tour – acres of extensive and respectful coverage in the Australian, the Tele, and on Sky – but the grand total of two ABC radio interviews and nothing in Fairfax. Dymocks Bookstore in Brisbane also cancelled one of my events. They told my publisher’s Brisbane rep they were ‘concerned about security, as they feel there will be controversy surrounding the book’. It’s difficult to blame them for this, even though it does represent a genuine example of ‘the chilling effect’ often used to describe what has emerged in the culture thanks to widespread support for no-platforming, boycotts, and social media pile-ons. Recent situations where online mobs have moved – or at least threatened to move – into the offline world have made venues nervous.
The real blame here should be sheeted home to wingnut activists who believe punching opponents is somehow morally purifying. Perhaps they need to be reminded the real losers in situations like this are minimum wage bookshop staff. A bookshop may be a nicer place to work than KFC but the pay rates are typically the same.Indulging in John Stuart Mill’s ‘tyranny of the prevailing thought and feeling’ to shut down ‘those who dissent’ is a now a multi-partisan phenomenon. If it’s not me, it’s Clementine Ford; if it’s not Clementine Ford, it’s Andrew Bolt.It’s not, strictly speaking, a free speech issue. It’s a civil society issue, and if anything, represents a fear of debate. That’s the thing with debates – it’s possible to lose.
Embiggen Books in Melbourne was asked why it was hosting ‘that right-wing writer’, which is something I’d like to unpick. Classical liberals aren’t right-wing, for starters, and I don’t write political books. I write to convince my readers to suspend disbelief, to believe that the world I have made is possible. That’s it.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Book I of her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, has just been released by Wilkinson and Ligature. She will return to Australia in March 2018 to launch Book II, Order.