Guy Rundle is a gonzo journalist and satirist. He is writer-at-large for Crikey. He has written several books, including Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism (2019), Inland Empire: America at the end of the Obama era (2014) and Down to the Crossroads: On the trail of the 2008 election (2008).
He has also written two Quarterly Essays, Clivosaurus: The politics of Clive Palmer (2014) and The Opportunist: John Howard and the triumph of reaction (2001).
Guy was previously the editor of Arena Magazine, producer of TV shows from Comedy Inc to future retro cult classic Vulture, the writer of several shows for the satirist Max Gillies.
ASTRID: Guy Rundle is a journalist, writer, and commentator. He has corresponded at large for Crikey and has written for most major Australian publications. Guy has also written several books, including his latest Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism, as well as two quarterly essays. Guy is not just a non-fiction writer, he began his career as a TV writer and producer, including for Full Frontal, and he has also written for stage plays with Max Gillies.
Guy, welcome to The Garret.
GUY: Hi Astrid, how are you?
ASTRID: I'm doing well. Now in Practice, you describe yourself as, and I quote, a writer activist, a journalist, a pro writer, and a hack. What is the difference?
GUY: Well, I think look, an activist, I began really as a political activist writing political screeds, if you like, in a fairly dry fashion, but also writing humour on the side. So, as an activist, I think, is someone who is actually writing for a specific other purpose than writing. And I was always that, and then I was trying to write humour and that sort of thing. And then having been a TV writer and producer, became a sort of full-time prose writer. And I think the difference between a pro writer and a hack, I think hack is not a negative term in my opinion. The hack is the writer who will write anything more or less.
ASTRID: Fair enough.
ASTRID: So, tell me about choosing the title Practice?
GUY: Practice, which we almost spelled accidentally – practise with an S – as if we were vets, comes from both the theoretical Marxist idea that a way of acting in the world constructs the world in a way, that a practice is a set of protocols and a way of doing things. And that's what writing is to me. And then the other thing is of course that writing is a never completed sort of process of trying to work out what you're doing and how you're doing it and trying to get something done in a certain way, succeeding a bit, failing a bit and going on to the next thing. So, it's a cumulative thing like that.
ASTRID: Now I notice on the cover of Practice, you have a quote or comment from Don Watson, and he describes your work, and I think he's describing your career here, as sweaty, subterranean, spontaneously brilliant writing.
ASTRID: What do you think about that? It's quite nice, hey?
GUY: Yeah, I've been very, very gratified by the quotes that have come out. So yeah. What do I think of it as a description of... Well, yeah. In a certain way, what I've been trying to do in the writing I've done over the past 15 to 20 years for publications like Crikey and The Age and other publications like that was find a way of writing about politics and culture and society that drew in some of the techniques and the approaches of Gonzo writing and that sort of alternative writing in order to kind of disrupt the genre. But it's also that it came really, I guess, in a way from... to a degree from sort of crisis. When I started this part of my career, I'd basically been a TV writer and producer for 10 years is one dimension of what I did. And that had really come to an end in about 2005, 2006. And in every sort, I'd done a terrible show at the ABC or future retro classic, maybe, which I won't even mention, I had sort of burned my bridges in commercial TV and I was sick of the whole thing anyway and just convinced it wasn't for me. And I had some money accumulated, so I just took off for a year or so in Europe. And as I ran out of money, I just started writing.
ASTRID: Whole new career.
GUY: Yeah, for Crikey and other places. And started writing in a way that was much more to do with being on the road and being unfixed. And at some point, I mean, I was in my late 30s, so suddenly not really knowing what you were doing anymore.
ASTRID: So, what prompted this collection now?
GUY: That's a really good question actually. Look, there's no particular reason, it's no sort of end of anything. I guess I probably... I started writing US political journalism in 2008 with the Obama campaign.
ASTRID: I've got questions on that coming up.
GUY: Yeah, I'll do that. And that worked and I enjoyed it, and so we did two or three other US election campaigns and a British election campaign often at sort of reasonable length, two, three, four months at a time. And I don't think I'll be doing that in that way anymore. I think I've sort of come to the end of that sort of immersion. I'll still do sort of a couple of weeks here or there to do the political coverage, but that sort of a soaking in the culture, I've probably done as much of that as I can. I can't think of anything new to write about it. So that did make some sort of natural end to an arc and then to include a whole lot of other stuff in. But it was also that a couple of publishers offered this time around and I owed Black Inc a book, but I owe everybody a book. So, they were the ones who... they were the lucky ones.
ASTRID: How did you choose what to include?
GUY: Yeah, well, that's a really good question. I mean, this has been delayed by about a year or so because I couldn't actually get down to excluding so much. It was more what not to include. I've been a very high-volume writer for a long time and so a lot of stuff had to go. There's a bunch of essays that kind of stood out that you know you've done something that you think is reasonably special, whatever the quality of them is. And then other people tell you that they agree. And so, they sort of select themselves.
There's a series of theoretical, not theoretical, I better not say that, it'll put people off. Political, practical, interpretive essays. And I really wanted them to go in because they were a sort of set of statements about the world today and a way of interpreting it for political action. There was a bunch of political journalism from places like Turkey and that sort of thing. And then it's sort of samples if you like of this or that piece of cultural analysis, all that sort of stuff. But for every one of those that goes in, five or six really have to be left out.
ASTRID: So in addition to choosing what went in, tell me about how you themed or sectioned the work?
GUY: Well, a lot of that was done by Chris Feik, the editor. The first time around, I sent him a vast list of staff and said, ‘I can't choose, I can't choose. What are we going to do?’ And then we stopped for about a few months, and then I just locked myself away and sent him a much pared down list. I had an idea of that it would be more of a sort of chain of essays that went through, connected to each other without necessarily having a shared topic. Chris thought, and I think I became to see that he was right, that that only worked if you yourself knew the essays already and otherwise it just lost the reader.
So at that point he reorganised it and we sort of tried to use the sections. So, the Australian politics section and the American politics section. And the American politics section, because so much of that is about contemporary America and what it looks like and what it feels like, that started to connect to stuff about cities and that sort of thing. And then that, because to a degree, the city is the crucible of politics, that then connects you up to politics. And because politics is so in some ways about culture, that connects you to that. And then we just had a couple of... a section with Chris's called ‘Lithium and Polo’, which is everything we couldn't put anywhere else.
ASTRID: Tell me about Chris, because so many writers I interview actually mentioned his work as an editor. I mean, I have to ask, what's he like to work with?
GUY: Oh, Chris is fantastic. I mean, Chris is the editor. The publisher slash editor is the unsung hero, and they should really get some sort of credit within a book in the sense of shaping, especially a book like this, shaping what's in, shaping what's out, finding things that you yourself had forgotten or that you'd never thought were worth including, giving you a reality check on a couple of indulgent 9,000-word pieces or that sort of thing. So, there's that with Chris. There's that sort of the art of the editor, the devotion of the editor to the strange practice of putting something together and then dissolving yourself in the process, there's no sign of the editor. I mean, I edited a magazine called Arena for about 12 years off and on, and that really is the paradoxical thrill of putting an issue together, is all these pieces come together in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and something has happened, but there's no sign of you there. And Chris is just... his contribution is incalculable.
ASTRID: Now I was thrilled, Guy, when I was reading Practice and I found the essay that I've always remembered you for. I was slightly obsessed with the American politics in 2008 and the election of Barack Obama. And in Down to the Crossroads, your first book, I believe, you actually wrote what was an incredibly vivid scene about the losing Republicans and some single malt whiskey and smooth mellow and Lord of the Rings and what they were all doing after Obama was elected. And that has stayed with me for every election ever since. And so, my question to you is how do you create such vivid imagery for your readers?
GUY: That's the question, isn't it? I'm trying to remember. Look, it's about presence. It's about putting things in the presence of what you can see, what you can hear, touch, taste and smell in a world, in a room, in a street, and that sort of thing. And that I think is the sort of base of what you're doing and it's absent from a lot of journalism's day. And one of the things in doing the writing I was doing was knowing the examples of people like A. J. Liebling and George Orwell and Joan Didion and those people who had still practiced an art of writing in what is seen and heard and that sort of thing.
And then it's a sort of, it is that taking off into fantasy. It's a satire on who these people are, put in concrete terms. I mean, I think it's always funniest or most revealing when you think, what would someone actually be doing? What's their secret life or something like that. So, the idea that Christopher Pine will now retreat to a basement with his toy train set and record of the month club and that sort of thing is... You build it like that I think.
ASTRID: Will you cover the 2019 Democratic or the 2020 election?
GUY: Oh, it's that far away, isn't it? Look well yeah, I will go over and do a week or so.
ASTRID: But no more immersion?
GUY: No, no. I don't think I could do that. I think someone else has got to give it a go and do it in a different way. There's only so many times you can write a certain sort of... I mean, what strikes me about America always again and again and again is this paradox of this society that when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties was still the dominant country in the world and had the confidence of it and that sort of thing. And now when you go to it, even though it's still got the largest GDP in the world and the largest army, the inside of it is just sort of broken. It's a wreckage compared to a place like China or something like that, which is sort of shooting ahead. And it's socially wrecked as well, inequality and crime and that sort of thing.
And that really is continually, it's a continual impact on you. It's a continual sort of shock and surprise because you've still got that idea of America as number one. And that has been sort of the engine room, if you like, of a lot of what I was writing. It's how does a people react to the idea that's very deep in their culture that they have to be number one, and the increasing evidence of their eyes, even if they don't know what anywhere else looks like, that they're not number one. That if this is... these broken-down cities, these lack of jobs, this terrible poverty, if that was being number one, well, what wasn't? And the obvious sort of result of that has been Trump. So we know what the result was, but it's the passage along the way that's been interesting.
ASTRID: I am Australian, however my partner's family is American, Midwestern Rust Belt. And every time I go to the Midwest and the Rust Belt, I feel a deep sense of alienation and I don't know what has happened to life in the world and creativity. Perhaps I can never understand what an American is or what the Americans think, but I read your writing and you can sum up what it's like to be in the Rust Belt with a phrase that ends in something like, ‘And they liquid cheese’ or something which really kind of describes the culture or lack thereof. Now, of course, in Practice, we don't just have political journalism. There is a beautiful essay actually on True Detective, the TV show.
GUY: Oh right, yes. Yeah, I've done a lot of writing on culture for Daily Review, I did a certain amount which is still going strong, or going, and bravely, and for Arena and that sort of thing. I mean, that's both an extension of a certain political activism in that you want to try and work out what's going on in a world in which culture is being produced at this enormous rate and we have a sort of division between life and culture and dah, dah, dah. And I'll say just a simple interest in even what makes something interesting to you? That sort of reflection on how it's working.
ASTRID: Now you've been a writer in various capacities for decades. Tell me about the freelance writer life and how on earth it's possible to make money.
GUY: Yeah, well, that is a very good question. Look, I got into it... as I said, initially the first money I got was for TV writing, it was for the ABC and then for Channel Seven. And the money was pretty good then because it was... this was even before cable TV came in in the nineties in Australia. There was still five channels. There was a dedicated large audience, and the money was reasonably good. From that, and in parallel with that, I was doing a sort of magazine editing for political activism, which paid no money at all. And then look, got into theatre reviewing for The Age.
So look, one answer that can't be avoided here is privilege. I'm a middle-class person, I went to Melbourne Uni at a time when you could just pretty much... if you've got a reasonable enough mark, just stroll in and do arts. I worked extraordinarily hard during certain periods at writing, at really trying to master a certain genre, trying to work out how it worked. And so I started writing theatre reviews for a paper, now long defunct paper called The Melbourne Times, which was a great little inner city newspaper which gave dozens and dozens of people its start. And basically, for the first few reviews, I'd write the review in four different ways and give it to the editor, Robin Usher, and let him choose which one he wanted.
ASTRID: That's a lot of work.
GUY: Yeah. But I think the only way to master a genre is to do an enormous amount of work. Just take theatre reviewing for example. A theatre review is as structured as genre as writing a sonnet say, or a villanelle or limerick or whatever. It may look random, but it really only has about five or six variations. And what you're learning is a way of writing that that clicks into the audiences' generic expectations. So they know it's a theatre review, they know how to read it. The technical control you need to write a theatre review is that you need to be able to introduce the theme that you're going to talk about while explaining what actually happened in the play, then evaluate the writing and the actors and the production, and then close it all off as a little self-contained piece of writing.
And that takes a bit of practice to actually get that right. And when it clicks in, an editor is going to be much more amenable to that sort of thing. So, if we're talking about making a living freelance, one of the things you could say is that you don't create problems for an editor, you try and solve problems for them. So, if you can turn yourself into someone who is an absolutely reliable reviewer of theatre, film, TV, or games or whatever, or of a certain type of article, then they're much more likely to go to you because they are usually panicked at the point of deadline anyway.
ASTRID: So just a kind of a random question, what do you think about the state of criticism and the space that we give all sorts of arts criticism these days?
GUY: Well, it's very scattered at the moment. I mean, in a way there's more of it than they used to be in the sense that there was a time where you lived or died on what The Age thought of your thing, and that's not the case anymore. On the other hand, we now have the point where you're getting below a critical mass of the audience in too many places. There's a lot of really good interesting writing. There's also, I think, with the sort of the current cultural phenomenon we've got of moral political evaluation of takes in terms of gender, class, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all of which as a general political sweep I agree with, as a general social accounting of where we're at and what needs to change. I would say that on the other hand, those categories have become very rigid in terms of a lot of criticism of theatre. And there are points where it's getting self-parotic, a Shakespeare play assessed as sort of sexist, racist, da da da, in those terms, and sort of writing things into contemporary political debates in a pretty narrow sort of way.
ASTRID: Indeed. Now you've worked for Crikey for quite a while. You are currently the correspondent at large, which sounds like a fantastic title. Can you explain what that is? And also, can you share with us your thoughts on the recent venture between Fairfax and Crikey and what that means for the publishing of non-fiction work in Australia?
GUY: Ah, yeah. Look, correspondent at large was just the title we settled on which was the idea that I, in consultation with the editors, I tend to have a wide brief and right. A straight news story one day and then a sort of experiential review the other day. So today I've got a piece in on The Clock, which is the Christian Marclay 24-hour film.
ASTRID: At ACMI?
GUY: At ACMI. But part of the writing about that is writing about going to the... It's usually only on from 10 to five, they have one 24-hour session a week. Going to that at 6:30 in the morning and staggering out and how the world looks after having been in the clock for two hours. And so that that's been a fantastic sort of job, really, to be able to do that and just go wherever your inspiration and imagination goes. I've been extremely lucky for there to be a job like that around to have. And what Crikey is doing in terms of what they've announced is taking on I think another dozen journalists and a new sort of an additional editor and focusing on inquiry journalism, we're calling it, which is a mixture of old school, investigative journalism, but also new ways of approaching building stories of some length, some series of interconnections. And that's about exploring power, how power works informally and formally in Australia, and really trying to give more of a picture of what's going on, so.
ASTRID: So many of the listeners of The Garret are writers who I suspect would find that a very attractive job opportunity. How does a new writer get the attention of an editor or someone like yourself?
GUY: Right. Okay. Well, let's see. To a certain degree, in terms of where you put stuff, I'm not the best person to ask in the sense that I'm 53. And with the best will in the world, the sort of the media sphere slips beyond you a bit. When you're 25, you absolutely know what's going on if you're paying attention. And as you go on, it sort of slips away and you don't really have an ensemble in your head. So, I really have no idea whether someone should start a blog or tweet people little tweets or that sort of thing, or just submit material.
I think once again, going back to the idea of solving an editor's problems, to present someone with a complete thing, to present someone with A, something that's only and ever always your best work, something that has been worked over multiple times in a first submission, and something that you could state what it does in a sentence, what they call in TV the log line. If you can't state what your article or piece is doing in a sentence, then you should go back and look at it, even if that sentence is a gross oversimplification. But if it doesn't have that spine, it seems to me that that means there is a sort of inverse ratio of work. Your first article should be intensely worked over and multiple drafts. And by which I mean not just redrafting, but start again from zero and that sort of thing several times on the same idea and get it to a point where you can see an internal wholeness to it.
ASTRID: So when an editor reads that kind of fully worked over really good submission, what is the leeway for the editor engaging in a bit of work? I mean, is it just fixing spelling mistakes? Is it a structural edit? How much should a writer expect an editor to…
GUY: Well, it's how long is a piece of string. Look, in terms of freelance submission, you should be willing for an editor to rebuild an article, even if you think that they're doing more damage. Unless it's at a point where you really think that what they would put out onto your name would be sort of an underselling of you, a distortion of what you were trying to do or who you were. It's going vary with the publication you're with. And it's, as I see it, much more likely today, there's going to be less editing rather than more. And that's another reason to have something that is there complete, where the editor goes to read it and looks and sees that it's pretty solid, hangs together, and they don't need to do much to it.
And that's going to go through a lot faster than something where you go, ‘Oh, I think I'm almost here, see what you think’, that sort of thing. I think one should never, when you're starting out, present that to an editor. That really is a recipe for getting put to the bottom of the pile and for the pile and for the editor never to get to the bottom of the pile. If you want to be a writer, say of short form non-fiction, there's got to be a period of your life where you do nothing but that for months or a couple of years at the time.
Once again, I was lucky with Crikey. I was lucky in several respects. TV was high volume, so you had to write sketches that had to be on a TV show that had to be on the next week, or there'd be a black hole in the schedule. Political writing, it just had to be done, you were filling something. And then cable TV, which I moved on to in producing that, the volume of that was extraordinary. There was no room for ego or for writer's block or anything like that. And it became the same thing with Crikey, but just became a daily article. You get to try so many variations on a certain way of doing things that it becomes a sort of second language. If you can find an opportunity like that, that's good. If you can't find an opportunity, you've got to create the framework where you do that.
ASTRID: So how do you deal with public criticism?
GUY: It varies. Let me see. I think I'm pretty good at not responding intemperately, but that's possibly because I'm not on social media. I don't Facebook and I have a Twitter account for watching what's going on, but I don't tweet. I never get into those spats. I've had a lot of dealing with critical reviews in theatre and that sort of thing, and that can really hurt.
ASTRID: Hurt emotionally, or hurt your career or?
GUY: Oh, it hurt emotionally in the sense of you never know what it does to your career. It can't help it, but it might make no difference. But no, it hurts in that it just... especially with a stage show which you spent a lot of work on and that sort of thing, which could have been then be dismissed a single review, and possibly you would feel misunderstood, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You've just got to walk around the block a few times and kick a brick and that sort of thing. And then try and, when the hurt, the butthurt has passed, see if there's anything that was correct in the review or anything you'd agree with or that's helpful in terms of what you're trying to do. Because often with a review, they don't share your intent. So Clivosaurus, the Quarterly Essay I wrote on Clive Palmer, is a good example. A couple of reviewers criticised that for not doing original research into Clive's life and that sort of thing, and for not doing a sort of straight slam of his political career.
Now, I thought just to do a straight write up of what a rogue he was would be boring because it'd be done. And I didn't think there was any need to dig any much more in terms of first order stuff. What I wanted to write was how does a figure like Clive Palmer arise. And I thought a lot of that had to do with the childhood in the Gold Coast when the Gold Coast was the only place in Australia which was like the Gold Coast. A little bit of Los Angeles. And so that was what I was trying to do. Now, when the critics don't even agree that that's a valid approach, that can be annoying. And yeah, as I say, it hurts, but then you look around. But I really think one has to avoid the responses on Twitter and that sort of thing, and in the comment strings of articles as much as you can.
ASTRID: Is there any publication that you would love to be published in and you haven't got there yet?
GUY: Oh look, one would love to be in The New Yorker or something like that. I made a couple of submissions years and years ago and I really haven't... at some point I lost the... I didn't lose it. I don't know. The urge to be published in this or this or that place somewhat faded and Crikey in the sense that there's a daily readership there and you can try different things became enough so to have a place to write. I might get back to doing some more essays that I'll actually send out, but really that ravenous ambition sort of had its peak a certain time in my 30s. And because Australia was a bit less globalised, it had a much more sort of Australian focus. I wanted to be in The Age and then I wanted to be in this and then I wanted to get a stage show with Max Gillies done, and most of those happened. So, I've been very lucky.
ASTRID: Is there any story that got away?
GUY: Any story...
ASTRID: Or anything that you haven't been able to publish yet?
GUY: There's been an enormous amount of stuff around Victorian crime and that sort of thing, that because we have this insane suppression order culture in Victoria, I haven't been able to publish and we've had sort of arguments with the lawyers and lawyers had arguments and that sort of thing that one would really want to blow open the gaff on all of that stuff. Some of these stories are really quite rip-roaring. So yeah, I'd like to do that. I'd liked to be in a culture more like America, or not a culture, a legal regime where there's much less chance of being sued for libel and you could write a lot more gossip.
But in terms of essays and things like that, there's stuff I'm still getting round to. So there's a whole series of bits and pieces I want to write that I'll get to in the next few years. So they're always there and I think some stuff stays around for 20 or 25 years before you get around to it. And you're never really going to have enough time to write all the things you had an idea about. So you got to get used to that as well and just do things one at a time.
ASTRID: You better get back to writing. Guy, thank you so much for coming on The Garret.
GUY: Thank you very much, Astrid.