It wasn’t really a novel. It was 25000 words or thereabouts. Still, an impressive word per day rate.
The 1988 Adelaide Festival Fringe had a three-day novel-writing contest. You entered, then wrote your novel on a long weekend and posted your manuscript to Landin Press. There, some poor soul read as much as they were able and picked a winner.
The winner that year was Up to your arse in alligators, a rather amusing terrorist farce written by Margo James .
Here’s a section of my effort. I have to say that Up to your arse in alligators was a worthy winner.
The main protegonist, Mike (a guitarist in a mediocre Adelaide band) is borrowing a bike from Warren (self-styled suburban intellectual).
“Why do you talk like that?”
“Talk like what, exactly?”
“You know how you talk. I know it’s a personal question and you don’t have to answer it or anything, but I’d like to know.”
“Why this sudden interest in my mode of speech?”
“Well, it’s something I’ve always wondered about. I guess you didn’t always talk that way but I remember when I was a kid and you seemed a lot older than me and you started using longer and longer words. I guess that was when you met some new people, or something.”
“Yes, I do remember. It was a conscious decision to adopt a mode of speech which imitated the classes to which I aspired.”
“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. Look, I’m about to meet a whole bunch of art students that are friends of a girl I just started seeing. What they say is going to be weirder than what you say.”
“Well… yes. I would say that the reason I speak as I do is similar to the reason that resulted in you playing in a rock music band.”
“Well, it’s all a matter of approval. In our society, ‘survival of the fittest’ has another meaning. It is no longer necessary to be physically fit to survive. Paraplegics, people with spina bifida, the mentally and physically handicapped, babies with circulatory abnormalities… medical, surgical and technological advances have ensured that they all survive. Now the quality of survival is assessed with reference to entirely different criteria. These pertain to the ability to survive and advance within society.
It is one’s self-concept which dictates how one will be able to relate to other members of the species – one must have approval. Altruism and generosity: these are null concepts. The reason behind a person being altruistic or generous is that he will thereby gain approval – this is the cause of what we call being noble and self-sacrificing. Man is not a noble animal – it is simply that the prime causative factor for behaviour is the improvement of the ego by soliciting approval in various ways that are being constantly tested by experiment.
This is obviously a mere summary of the mechanism. Yet any positive action can be traced to this common motivation. Of course, everyone’s target audience is different. For example, some people require that their lives have some meaning and adopt a previously invented god and generate their behaviours according to the tenets of a religion. In this way, they can withstand negative reactions by much of the populace. The taunts of the ephemerals are as nought compared to the forthcoming divine reward. In this way, martyrdom is born.”
“Er… yeah. I’m struggling a bit here. Remember I wasn’t too good in Matric.”
“Yes, dear boy, but I credit you with a good deal of intelligence. I have faith in our genetic make-up, though not your eye make-up from my memory of the one occasion I was subjected to your group’s performance.”
“Yes, well. Obviously, you are part of my target audience. I think a person will always feel the need to seek approval from that initial influence – one’s family. In fact, the first tactics one learns in the battle for the enlarged ego are learned from the family. One finds out which deeds will elicit praise. We discover which will bring attention and surface disapproval but we all recognise sympathy for the underdog, the grudging respect given to the David, who by underhand tactics, brings about the demise of a mighty Goliath. And so we learn to be naughty. We learn to do what we can get away with. We learn not to tell tales. We learn not to boast even when we desperately want recognition for our deeds. And we learn ways to make our deeds know without us directly conveying the information to our target audiences.
Then come the friends. And more – we are sent to school. The influences widen. The teacher is a substitute parent. We must accept products of different families with different values. We are faced with behaviours, hitherto unacceptable, but now blatantly exhibited by others. We inform authority of these but are met with disapproval. We try these behaviours and receive more disapproval. We are puzzled. We are told to be ourselves – a manifestly ridiculous instruction as the self is the sum of our perceptions of our experiences in gaining approval from those from whom we require approval.
So every new experience in life threatens us. The threat is disapproval, especially from those we know and respect, but also, somehow, from that waiter who smirks at your pronunciation of Italian menu items.
We can analyse any person and discover the influences that formes their personalities. It may be easier with the aged who are said to become set in their ways. This is because they have collected such vast experience in the behaviours that deliver the required approval that they scarcely seek feedback as any new information is as nothing when compared with their vast archives of previously acquired knowledge.
As one example in millions, let us consider a caretaker I saw recently at a youth camp. He would seize upon any violation of camp protocol and berate the hapless miscreant mercilessly. This individual was not a man of great education or standing in the community, but he gained his approval by visualising others seeing him as firmly in charge. Every time some poor youth disobeyed the rules, that child would instantly know that this man Knew What He Was Doing.”
“Yeah, I’ve met them.”
“Well… in my case, I went to school and reacted to the influences as does everyone. I resented being asked continually what one called ‘a bloke with fourteen rabbits up his bum’. Naturally, I avoided these individuals as I could not retort with insults which they found sufficiently cutting. Crudity did not come easily because of my family influences.
I socialised with the types who also avoided the insulters. I found them in the library and gained my approval from success in scholastic endeavours. In high school, I joined the chess club. With these people, longer words brought approval. An accent such as this followed naturally.
I went to university and received a shock. There was no more obvious and direct teacher approval. The impersonal nature of the lecture hall did not allow close relationships with professors, and in tutorials I was rather slow to communicate my points. Scholarly achievement no longer brought the rewards I had come to crave.
So… well, I entered the public service. I can now do a job where, to be frank, I can impress people with my learning and my command of words. I would imagine that you are in a band because at school, those to whom you gravitated socially valued rock musicians to the extent of having them as social heroes.”
“Yeah… I guess so. Everyone had pictures of pop stars on their books and band names on their schoolbags.”
“You have been fortunate in realising, at least partially, the ambition to gain approval by this method. Yet, perhaps your success in this venture has not forced you to seek the necessary kudos elsewhere and make a financial success of yourself.”
“You’ve seen our parents recently?”
“Yes. They are concerned about you, dear boy.”
“Yeah. Still unemployed and collecting a tiny, untaxed income.”
“And your social security cheques.”
“And my social security cheques.”
“Well, I envy you in some ways. You have achieved a reasonable standing in what I formerly considered to be mainstream culture.”
“Er… thanks. Look, why don’t you publish this philosophy of yours?”
“Ah… I have the results of eighteen months of research on my study desk.”
“Great. When will you finish it?”
“I am not at all sure that I dare.”
“Why? I don’t get it.”
“It’s like this. I have a comfortable lifestyle with a position in which I am valued. People consult me about everyday problems. In my own way I am a leader. People know that I am writing this amazing philosophy.”
“Yes. So do I and I’d like to read it.”
“You may never do so. You see, to complete a work such as this, I would need to perceive sufficient approval to be forthcoming as a result of publication. But I do not. In order to complete the manuscript, I would be taking a risk. The evidence would be there in black and white for trained specialists to examine and dispute. I can speak impressively but I am not good at fielding the types of questions which would undoubtedly be flung. I may lose approval. People would not wish to recognise themselves in my examples. Cultured people do not wish to know that the only reason they do not pick their noses in public is that they fear disapproval.
So when I have my holidays, I become enthusiastic and sit at my desk with blank pages and sharpened pencils, but when I come to place my life’s work on paper, I see the experts picking at every sentence as I think it.”
“Oh… Have you heard of anything like your ideas before?”
“Oh certainly, dear boy. It’s officially termed ‘egoism’ and many writers have skirted quite convincingly around it, damning it as a theory with some good points, but… The problem is, nobody really wants to know their true motives. Denouncing the courage of soldiers or the compassion of Mother Teresa as approval-seeking behaviour is rather worse than burning the Stars and Stripes on Capitol Hill.”
“I see what you mean.”
“”Well now… About your artist and her threatening friends.”
“I cannot furnish you with any advice which is guaranteed to work. If you are exceedingly adept and able to interpret feedback immediately, as I cannot, you may use the Theory to your advantage.”
“What’s the Theory?”
“It is my concise appellation for that system of socialisation which I have briefly described.”
“What do you mean, I could use it?”
“Very well, let us consider your alternatives. Where is the meeting with these individuals to take place?”
“Ah… in a theatre… it’s a dance thing… production. I don’t know what the theatre’s called.”
“Well, you could go as you are, with no formal preparation. Or you could attempt to learn as much as possible about some field of art or a similar esoteric topic in order to convince them that you are well versed in some abstruse technique. I doubt that this would achieve any success.”
“Yeah. Michelle knows I don’t know a lot about art.”
“Michelle. A good private-school name.”
“What may work is a means of finding some way of giving them approval that has some meaning to them. Now, in order to achieve this, you will initially need to project an image that will convince them, for the purpose of a first impression, that it is worth their while trying to gain your respect. If you can do this, they will talk about themselves ad nauseam, enabling you to shield the dreadfully mundane truth about yourself.”
“Yeah, but what am I supposed to do? Stalk down the stairs in an ermine gown with my fifth husband in tow?”
“Dear boy, that is entirely up to you. I have no idea of your capabilities in such a role. I would suggest something in the way of participation in a rock music band.”
“But Michelle knows that my band’s nothing special. She saw us play on Friday night.”
“Well Michael, you are on your own.”
“Can I borrow your bike now?”