At the book launch for Red Dress Walking, my friend and fellow Marlborough Street Book Club member Simone clinked my champagne flute and slyly remarked, ‘Well Serje, now that you are an Australian author, you’ll have to stop bagging them’. I poked my tongue out at her and recommenced swanning about the room in the fabulous frock my Mum had bought me for the occasion. But Simone’s cheeky jibe rankled. For the truth was that I did have an aversion to Australian authors. A mightily strong one. When an Australian text was selected by one of the Marlborough crew for the monthly read I groaned inwardly. But there are two rules at our book club, and one of them is that you read with good grace whatever is selected.
I try to honour the code, I really do. But I confess that on those rare occasions when I don’t finish a book (and the even rarer, almost unheard of, occasions when I don’t even start) the offending tome is almost certain to be Australian. I’m a passionate and possibly even obsessive bibliophile. Reading is one of the great pleasures of my life. But any pleasure I might have otherwise known from Australian authors was eviscerated by my high school literature syllabus.
Notwithstanding my otherwise joyful and nourishing English literature education, the Australian texts were a test of endurance. With the exception of the poets – who had wit and verve and a spritely use of language (how keenly I remember the ‘man alone in the evening in his patch of vegetables’) – the prose seemed to be chosen for no other reason than that it exemplified a certain ‘Australianness’. I ploughed through turgid tales of pioneering spirit and bush ingenuity that read like prose versions of Dorothea McKellar’s ‘My Country’. But as long as there were lengthy descriptions of the bush, and outback life was depicted as simultaneously cruel and compelling it would pass muster. I do not recall that other texts had to reek of a particular ‘nation-ness’. English novels weren’t required to have a quintessential ‘Englishness’ or Canadian authors a distinctive ‘Canadian-ness’. Why then, this bent for prose Australiana?
The reading experience lodged most deeply in my memory is Randolph Stow’s Merry Go Round in the Sea, or as it was swiftly libelled by my class, Merry Go Round in the C (Word). It is ungracious to speak ill of the dead; especially one whose recent passing means his place in Australian literary history is being appraised and settled even as I write this. But my truth is that I struggled through that book, the plot of which I vaguely recall as involving a returned serviceman, scarred and taciturn, struggling to re-integrate into the country town he hailed from. Though plot details are gone from me, I viscerally remember the sinking, heavy feeling the book caused. The sentences seemed weighted. They were barriers I had to push through rather than open vistas that beckoned me. I thought of it as ‘damper prose’: stolid and indigestible but undeniably Australian. The use of Australian idiom and the exploration of nascent Australian identity birthing itself from its colonial past need not necessarily be dull, but I experienced it as such.
Later, at university, the Australian texts on offer in foundation English courses were all damper prose. That was enough for me. If that was ‘Australian literature’, I did not want to know about it. My initial negative experience hardened to a prejudice and thence to a position. I appreciate it may seem strange to let one or two negative experiences decide one implacably against something. But it only takes one bout of alcohol poisoning for one to shudder at the offending liquor’s smell for the rest of one’s life. So it was with me and damper prose. It lodged in my very cells and I could not shake the aversion.
Having taken up my position, however unfairly, it became part of my idiom, almost part of my personality. When a girlfriend lost her cache of Tim Winton novels in the recent Perth storms (they were stored in a cardboard box in her garage), it was me that she messaged to say: ‘Well at least I know one person who will be pleased’. I could say the same about my prejudice as Lizzy Bennet said about Mr Darcy ‘I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one’s genius, such an opening for wit to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying any thing just; but one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty’.
Simone’s remark at my book launch needled that tenderest part of me – my writerly vanity. For I was an unknown debut Australian novelist desperately hoping that readers would take a chance on me and my wares. And if they were gracious and generous enough to do so, what right had I to cling to my position, no matter the opportunities for wit it afforded me? I repudiated my stance and hauled myself into a concentrated immersion in Australian literature.
Armed with a copy of Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics, I’ve belatedly been acquainting myself with Joan Lindsay, Marcus Clarke, Christina Stead and Neville Shute, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But it is the newer crop of Australian novelists that have really knocked me for six and compensated me tenfold for the pain of damper prose. To think what my prejudice would have cost me had I allowed it to continue festering! Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, with its charming adolescent relationship between the protagonist and his best friend Jeffrey, is just gorgeous. ‘I bid you a Jew’ indeed! Kate Grenville’s Dark Places, which I read with my hand at my throat because of the anxiety it provoked, is one of the most psychologically astute books I’ve read. Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell which, in one of those uncanny but common kismets that happen between readers and writers, mused on themes like historical obligation, historical memory and collective guilt, which were obsessing me after my return from Europe in 2008.
Perhaps the greatest boon of my new openness though, is that it has turned me into a different kind of reader. I realise now that for all my pretensions at being an eclectic reader I have not strayed too far from the established and emerging canon. The classics (English, Russian, French, Italian and American), Booker Prize nominees and Pulitzer winners – these were my staples. An ‘independent reader’? Hmmm. Perhaps not. In sloughing off my Antipodean prejudice I’ve become a much more adventurous reader, devouring debut novelists who often appear without (deserved) media fanfare. Robyn Mundy, Amanda Curtin, Gary Bryson and Alice Nelson are names I might otherwise have glanced over as I browsed the shelves in search of ‘more reliable, tried and trusted’ fare. But no more. I’m well on my way to becoming a positive devotee of the emerging Australian novelist. So much so that at the 2009 Marlborough Christmas windup, where we reviewed our literary year, I had the satisfaction of having read more Australian novels than any other Marlborough (it is not lost on me that I may have replaced one form of snobbery with another…)
Out of curiosity I downloaded the Curriculum Council’s literature syllabus the other day to see what today’s Year 12 literature students can look forward to. After all this time, Merry Go Round in the Sea retains its place on the syllabus. He is one of an abundance of Australian authors on offer, many of them entirely delicious. If only Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth had been the text for exploring ‘historical and cultural contexts of the writer, the text and the reader’ when I was at school; I could have spared myself the last fifteen years of deprivation. Grenville and Silvey are there too, as are my other new faves, Richard Flanagan, Gail Jones and Sue Woolfe. So there is plenty beyond the damper prose of old.
Armed with my newfound knowledge, though, some of the syllabus looks amiss to me. Apparently ‘Australian writers/texts are indicated with an asterix’. Yet there is no such marker next to Charlotte Wood, Sue Woolfe and Marcus Clarke (admittedly the latter was born in England, moving to Australia at age seventeen, but surely For the Term of His Natural Life counts squarely as an Australian text?). It is a measure of how far I have come as a reader over the last couple of years that these omissions are causing me genuine anxiety. What if students miss out on these writers because their ‘Australianness’ is missed?
Stone the crows, how I’ve changed my tune.
S.A. Jones holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia. Her first novel Red Dress Walking was published by Allen and Unwin in 2008. She is currently completing a memoir of reading and her second novel. She is also determined to read To the Islands. Her web address is www.sajones.com.au.