TEXT review

How to write a classic

review by Jay Daniel Thompson



Finola Moorhead
A Handwritten Modern Classic
Spinifex Press, Melbourne 2013
ISBN: 9781742197999
Pb 75pp AUD24.95


Finola Moorhead’s A Handwritten Modern Classic first appeared on bookshelves in 1982. The book’s recent republication by Spinifex Press will doubtless mean that it is introduced to a new readership.

The book is mostly a series of loosely-connected ruminations on the strengths and pitfalls of cultural production and creativity. Moorhead describes the importance of ‘imagination’ and ‘simplicity’, and cautions against ‘nonsense’ (1, 14, 12). For the author, ‘understanding’ is important: ‘To sacrifice the experience of understanding for some pre-determined ego gratification is what is generally expected of the individual in this society’ (13).

Throughout the text, Moorhead also makes observations about the (sometimes parlous) nature of local and global politics. She describes the oppressive experience of living in a society where protest is stifled (and in quite dramatic fashion) by state forces. Take the following scene, which unfolds in inner-city Melbourne:

I am too scared to live in this police state. The installation down at Brunswick St. now includes an enormous cyclone fence, three to five lines of vehicles, including buses, paddywagons [sic], horse-floats, dog-vans and many white squad cars. (28)

Elsewhere, Moorhead concedes that ‘[i]gnorance is reactionary politics’, and that ‘[r]elationships can change your politics’— no doubt for better and worse (51). ‘Normality’ might be ‘a neurotic mess’, but ‘[i]t is a political act to change normality’ (26).

Moorhead’s book is indeed handwritten. This invites a more careful reading of the text than might otherwise have been possible. I found myself paying particularly close attention to the words on the page, just so that I did not miss (or misread) something. A Handwritten Modern Classic traverses the boundaries of poetry, prose and free-thought. Some passages, such as those quoted above, resemble slogans that one might encounter emblazoned upon banners at political demonstrations.

The very act of ‘handwriting a modern classic’ is mentioned several times throughout the meagre seventy five pages, and it seems almost laughably—and intentionally— oxymoronic. After all, ‘classic’ status is usually bestowed upon a text over time. (Surely nobody sets out to write one?) Handwriting is hardly ‘modern’, and anyway, who reads, let alone publishes, handwritten books? The text’s idiosyncratic literary style (of which the scrawled passages form a major part), would surely, however, make it eligible for ‘cult classic’ status.

At its best, A Handwritten Modern Classic marries savvy ideological insights with literary flair. Take the following passage:

Dear Ladies-in-the-lounge, you are older and you imagine that it would be better having an intelligent man to talk to. Why do you blame each other? Your blame keeps you separate from one another and magnifies the ravages made by men on each of you – one even has a bandaid [sic] over the left eye. (20)

This passage suggests the way in which women are pitted against one another in sexist societies. The passage also suggests the societal pressures that women face in order to relate (sexually and otherwise) to men. The latter suggestion is in keeping with Moorhead’s lesbian feminist politics. These politics have been integral to several of her other works, namely Remember the Tarantella (1987) and Darkness More Visible (2000).

And yet, in the above passage, women are not framed as the powerless dupes of hetero-patriarchy. The question ‘Why do you blame each other?’ encourages the ‘Ladies-in-the-lounge’ — and, more broadly, female readers — to confront their ingrained sexism, and hopefully do something about it. Moorhead closes this passage by stating: ‘Now I’ve finished this glass of beer. Good night’ (20). She leaves the ‘Ladies-of-the-lounge’ to decide whether to remove the male-biased ‘bandaids’ that blind them, or keep them intact.

Alas, some of the book’s other political statements are almost painfully naïve. For example, readers are warned that ‘(b)eing a victim is watching too much television’ (2). We are also warned that ‘frustration’ and ‘sentiment’ are tools used by the political Right to nullify the masses (26 and 38). So I wonder, are readers being asked to accept that (say) ‘frustration’ is always ‘right-wing’? Is television always oppressive? To be fair, the above warnings may well be (at least partly) tongue-in-cheek, but this is never entirely clear. Conversely, Moorhead may have decided to speak her mind without resorting to metaphors or abstraction. That is fine, and to some extent commendable, but it does not always make for sophisticated reading.

Finally, and perhaps understandably, some passages have dated. In 1982, the idea of a ‘spontaneous revolution’ breaking out in ‘untrendy, forgotten’ Collingwood may have seemed like a delightfully utopian prospect (30). Yet revolution seems highly improbable in the gentrified Collingwood of today. The notion that ‘writers should have … free access to Photostat machines’ seems very quaint in 2013 (37).
Despite its flaws, A Handwritten Modern Classic remains a wonderfully lively and eccentric read. Moorhead’s prose and political edge are endearing, even if her platitudes are sometimes cringe-worthy. Her handwriting (which is more legible than this reviewer could ever muster) is a refreshing alternative to the more impersonal printed text.



Dr Jay Daniel Thompson completed a PhD in Australian Literature at The University of Melbourne in 2009. He works in research administration at La Trobe University, and is Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (JASAL).


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste