Laurie Clancy: novelist, teacher, bloke

In his salad days, Laurie Clancy had two ambitions. One was to be a good footballer and the other was to be a good writer. Clancy readily admits that he very quickly realised he had no chance at the first, playing with a lot of enthusiasm but unfortunately little talent. His second aspiration, however, despite a now obvious capacity, had slim hopes in those days of getting encouragement.

Clancy has published five fictional works: The novel A Collapsible Man, 1975, winner of the National Book Council award; The Wife Specialist, 1978, a collection of short stories; Perfect Love, the 1983 novel that won the Australian Natives Association award; City to City, 1989, short stories; and his most recent The Wildlife Reserve, 1994. He has also published four works of literary criticism, including A Reader’s Guide to Australian Fiction, which is going into its second edition. And Clancy has just finished another novel.

As an undergraduate in the early ’60s, Clancy faced a solid wall of doctrine that maintained that it was pointless to write fiction as all great works of literature had already been written. ‘In those days, most Australian academics were trained in England, so it tended very much to be an Anglophile tradition,’ Clancy says. ‘Teaching the ‘Great Canon’ (the classics from the 16th to the 19th century) was thought to be indispensable. The so-called ‘dead white male’ literature.’

Now Reader in English at La Trobe University (an alternative title to associate professor, which he prefers not to use), Clancy still finds academics arguing that it is pointless to write since novelists don’t really write their works at all. ‘They and he are written by his readers and he is really in no control of his own work,’ he says. ‘There is a certain satisfying symmetry in these opposed brands of idiocy.’

Some people claim not to teach literature at all. ‘One person at Melbourne (university) objected when I used the word literature – books aren’t literature any more, they’re texts. Moby Dick can reveal insights, Love Story can reveal insights.

‘But I have to say that really, I find some books more interesting than others,’ he says. ‘I mean, there’s only so many times you want to read a Batman comic, whereas you can always come back to Hamlet.’

After his first novel, written during a fellowship to the US, Clancy came to a crossroads – to pursue the career of a full-time writer, or stick with academia. He decided to stay with academic life. ‘Like most Australian writers I’ve still got to make a living, and if it was a job that I really hated I think I might have given it up and taken a chance. But I regard myself as a very fortunate man. To be paid for reading books, talking about books, writing books – I couldn’t think of a better life really.’

Clancy confesses that he is neither a fast nor a prolific writer. ‘I’m trying to write a section of the novel I’m working on at the moment, and I find that day after day I get 100 or 200 words down. Some days I get nothing, and often those 200 words aren’t any good anyway,’ he says. ‘I find it very hard. But of course the result is what matters.’

The study and criticism of fiction, however, can at times sit awkwardly with the creative drive, although Clancy maintains that the critic in him is always stronger, and that academic involvement can do more good than harm. ‘It develops your self-critical instinct – probably to an unhealthy degree,’ he says. ‘I really envy those writers who have massive egos – you know, the ones who think they’re really bloody Shakespeare on a stick.’

Australian cultural life, he says, is generally in pretty good shape – although ‘no-one wants to say it is perfect’. But these days, an Australian writer does not feel obliged to write about kangaroos and wallabies.

‘You can write about worlds of totally creative imagination, and this is taken for granted now. And Australian books are published and read widely overseas. That’s not a form of cultural cringe, but it’s significant for example that we’ve won the Booker prize two or three times, and have had books nominated frequently. Americans now have got a consciousness of Australian fiction, in the way they have developed a consciousness of Australian films and Australian wine.’

Yet Clancy admits that in the mainstream there is not much exposure for writers in Australia, and that there are very few writers who are public figures in the way that Patrick White, for example, was a public figure. ‘If you’re a sports star and you open your mouth you instantly make news, but you don’t if you’re a writer.

‘But of course you know if you’re a sports star you’ve only got so many years. With writing, if your marbles don’t go or your liver doesn’t give out, you’re usually okay,’ he says.

‘And just for the record I had my liver checked out the other day and it’s okay. And the blood pressure’s good too – except when Richmond are playing.’

This story was written for Good Weekend magazine