Each year the Guardian presents its summer short fiction special. It’s an interesting read, if only to chart the trajectory of fiction in the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, assess larger trends in global literature.
Included in the 2011 edition were stories from four established writers as well as the winner of and four runners-up in the Guardian’s short story competition. Reading through the collection, I noticed an all too familiar dichotomy. Most of the writers had produced a traditional type of story: having received their brief, they had chosen a path from which to create a familiar fictional world.
In short, there were eight writers, happy to write a traditional narrative… and then there was Jennifer Egan.
Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel/linked short story collection A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the Guardian, she wrote To Do, which is, as it sounds, an eighteen-task to-do list; when combined, the tasks form a coherent, engaging short story. Or do they? Readers of Goon Squad were already familiar with Egan’s willingness to experiment with form; she’d included a story told in PowerPoint slides, and another in the guise of a music magazine interview. Though said parts were disparate, the whole evoked a near-typical reading experience, or to put it another way: A Visit From the Goon Squad was comfortably experimental.
To Do is far less accessible. Reading through the list, one senses only a general unease: a shifting from sanity to insanity that is at best uncomfortable, and at worst eerily accurate in its depiction of a particularly unhinged individual.
If the story riled readers, it’s because there’s a fine line between experimentation and pretension. I certainly felt conflicted after reading it: I’ve always been happy to see authors think outside the box; still, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a case of an established writer being granted free rein to experiment. I don’t doubt there were numerous entries to the Guardian’s short story competition that had tried similar structural tricks, but I doubt many were given serious consideration.
Which is not to discredit Egan’s virtuosity. If I personally didn’t enjoy To Do, then that is my experience; it says nothing about my overall feelings towards either Egan or her other stories. I’m also glad she’s following in the footsteps of literary trailblazers Raymond Queneau, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis and Georges Perec in experimenting with story structure. To my mind, we need more people like Egan – more authors willing to write challenging fiction, whatever the format. And not all of them need to be part of the literary establishment.
As a literary culture, we should be wary of ascribing genius to those writers who’ve already been so defined. Equally important is a willingness to embrace experimentation and innovation at all levels of writing. Nationally, such experimentation is rarely nurtured, if at all. How many Australian authors have been rejected because their work wasn’t ‘commercial’ enough? And for how long will we have to read the same types of stories before the penny drops that in a strong literary culture, all types of voices should be represented?
Thematically, much of Australian literature has for too long been focused on what Jo Case described in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings as ‘bush and beach’. It’s been locked in traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling both culturally exclusive and gender biased. These modes are of little relevance to a predominantly urban contemporary Australian society, shaped as it is by multiculturalism, globalisation and neoliberalism. More importantly, regionalist literature is driving away a potential readership, a readership that can readily find more relevant and compelling characters, settings and narratives in various other media.
Australian writing wasn’t always so conservative. The 1970s saw experimentation in its ascendancy: Peter Carey, Frank Moorhouse and Murray Bail all wrote seminal works during this period and today they’re three of Australia’s most influential male writers. In 1975, Kate Jennings released the deliberately unedited Mother, I’m Rooted through Outback Press, giving voice to 152 Australian women, most of whom were previously unpublished. Out of a similar spirit came debut works from eventual literary stalwarts Helen Garner and Elizabeth Jolley. While it’s difficult to quantify the impact of such a free-thinking publishing environment, its legacy can be seen in the those writers still revered more than thirty years later. It even stands to reason there’s a correlation between their early freedom to experiment and their eventual and prolonged literary success.
Australia would greatly benefit from a return to such a liberal aesthetic, and indeed recent works from Emmett Stinson, Tom Cho, Tim Richards and Josephine Rowe suggest there’s still hope for a varied and imaginative approach to Australian literature. That said, almost all experimentation is occurring in poetry and the short form, and much of that is coming from literary journals and smaller publishing houses, with few mainstream literary novels willing to take the risks that make for groundbreaking literature.
For the most part we’re trapped in postcolonial mythology, and while regionalist retrospectives may create the illusion of a cohesive national voice, they won’t create a diverse literary scene worthy of the world’s attention. Experimentation in form, voice and structure may not guarantee sales but it will guarantee a vibrant mix of original writers, all of whom are dedicated to creating, innovating and broadening the scope of Australia’s literary output.
If Jennifer Egan is already on board, then why aren’t we?
Laurie Steed’s review ‘Revenge of the Nerd: Fetish, Fantasy and Chuck’ appears in Kill Your Darlings Issue Six.