At last year’s Adelaide Writers Festival, during a session on The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, an impassioned argument broke out on the subject of Australian writing. Robert Dessaix declared that, in our current age of globalisation, where national identities and national cultures are harder to define, there is no longer any such thing as Australian writing. ‘Do any of us write as Australian writers?’ he asked his fellow panellists Chloe Hooper, Michelle de Kretser and Malcolm Knox. ‘I know I don’t. I write as moi. I don’t write about Aborigines and sharks.’
Hooper (who could be crudely said to have written ‘about Aborigines’ in her 2009 smash-hit The Tall Man) argued that the diversity Dessaix saw as signalling the demise of Australian literature is in fact at the core of its identity. She demonstrated this by citing the Macquarie anthology, which encompasses de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka, and Dessaix’s engagement with the world beyond our shores. ‘I feel proud to be in an anthology of Australian literature,’ said Sri-Lankan born de Kretser. ‘It does give pleasure to some people and make them feel like they’re finally accepted as being Australian.’
But Dessaix’s interpretation of Australian writing as being about ‘Aborigines and sharks’ – or, as it’s more commonly summarised, bush and beach – is alive and well, as shown by this year’s deeply (and variously) controversial Miles Franklin shortlist. From the setting of a sheep station, Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran explores the loss of optimism and confidence in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance tells the story of the post-colonial destruction of the indigenous Noongar people and their traditions, and the possibility of a new world created by the encounters of very different peoples. (It should be noted that contrary to some post-Miles commentaries, Scott is not yet another example of an Anglo male writer being favoured. He is an indigenous writer, one of only two ever to win the Miles Franklin: Benang was joint winner, in 2000, with Thea Astley’s Drylands.) And finally Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a Gothic novel set in the aftermath of World War I during the Spanish flu epidemic, as an Australian soldier returns to the scene of a terrible crime in his country hometown, hoping to somehow reconcile the past.
The three novels were described by judges as sharing ‘a distinctive, indelible Australian voice’. That those three books were all written by men, and all shared a historical rural setting, sparked immediate and furious discussion about just what Australian writing is – and about the definition of Australian writing recognised and rewarded by the literary establishment. ‘Isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice,’ wrote Angela Meyer on Crikey’s LiteraryMinded, barely an hour after the shortlist announcement. ‘Sheep stations, war, colonisation … I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define “Australian life”.’
Meyer’s observation was echoed the next day by Wheeler Centre programming director Michael Williams. ‘The definition of “Australian life in any of its phases” that has consistently been favoured by successive judging panels is one with a bias towards the historical, towards the rural, towards the Anglo,’ he wrote on the Wheeler Centre website. ‘If our notion of a “sufficiently Australian” novel adheres to these constraints – to a sunburnt country and its battlers – then it’s little wonder judges tend to favour male stories.’
Six months earlier, driven by the Adelaide Writers’ Week argument, I’d begun to research the question of what we mean by ‘Australian writing’, driven by my own belief that a national literature – telling and reading our own stories – is vitally important to our sense of self. How can a generation of storytellers grow up believing that their voices are worth listening to, that a life lived in Melbourne is as culturally valid as a life lived in New York or London, if the only stories we celebrate come from elsewhere? And if Australian literature is narrowly defined as something alien to the way most of us live now, how many writers will feel inspired and emboldened to embark on a writing career?
‘I think it’s more like having an Australian accent than being an Australian writer,’ responded novelist Charlotte Wood when I posed Dessaix’s question – Do you identify as an Australian writer?
‘I guess I’ve written about what I’ve seen around me in contemporary Australia.’
That idea, of writing with an Australian accent, comes through in Wood’s most recent novel, The Children, about a family reunited by a serious accident, which brings the scattered adult children back to the rural NSW town where they grew up to visit their ailing father. There are no lush descriptions of landscape, little Australian vernacular (except for a couple of stray bloodys), no surfing or sea – but it’s deeply and instantly recognisable as the kind of country town you might have driven through, or indeed have lived in; a place where most of the children grow up and gratefully leave in order to broaden their choices. ‘I wrote about what I see of country towns rather than a kind of lost romantic idea about what a country town is,’ said Wood, pointing out that in our film and television, more so than books, we see a cliché of ‘a dusty, weather-beaten, corrugated iron kind of place’, or the patronising quirkiness of shows like Seachange or the film Mullet, that doesn’t reflect what a contemporary Australian country town is, so much as a national myth.
In Wood’s fictional town of Rundle, there’s a Liquorland, a Best & Less, kids dressed in surf gear far from the sea. A climactic family dinner takes place in a pub dining room with plastic-coated menus and exotic-sounding dishes like Tuscan Lamb, the culinary labels wistfully signalling elsewhere. Town residents are proud of the recently revamped pub though city visitors disdain it as embarrassingly pretentious. On one level, it’s generic – it could happen anywhere – but on another this geographical inferiority is deeply Australian. Eldest daughter Mandy works as a war correspondent, reporting back from far-away places, and even her mother Margaret ref lects nostalgically on her teenage dream of being an air hostess.
‘The things that make me Australian are more psychological,’ says novelist and former publisher Sophie Cunningham. That much of her writing is set overseas makes the definition of ‘Australian’ particularly tricky in her case. Her first novel, Geography (which included canny descriptions of the Sydney–Melbourne dichotomy and rich evocations of swimming at Bondi) was set between California, Melbourne and Sydney. Her second, Bird, is set entirely overseas. ‘You could argue that just the mere fact of being a long way from everywhere else drives the plot a lot. Australians are some of the biggest travellers in the world. And you do travel more and longer; it forms the character of the novel. But it’s a subtle point.’
It’s a point fellow novelist Patrick Allington agrees with – and he offers that while Bird is ‘not an Australian book in any sense or form, to me it feels like it is somehow. I can’t say why in any tangible sense.’
Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead – set mostly in Cambodia, following the twinned stories of Pol Pot’s right-hand man and a Wilfred Burchett-like Australian foreign correspondent – was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009. ‘In my own writing, what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the role of Australia in the world and the tyranny of distance that doesn’t exist as a geographical thing elsewhere in quite the same way. It seems to me it carries on in our heads quite powerfully.’
It’s interesting that both Allington’s novel and Wood’s The Children – two very different books – feature the key character of an Australian correspondent (Allington’s Ted and Wood’s Mandy) who, on their return, experience ‘home’ as alien and shockingly removed from the rest of the world.
When asked if he identified as an Australian writer, Allington replied: ‘I do, but that makes it sound as if I’m sitting around doing random surveys to make sure I’ve mentioned gum trees often enough per page, or weaved a platypus into the plot somehow. Which is what I think people think about when they think of Australian writing.’
In my conversations – with booksellers, publishers, writers, critics – the same names cropped up again and again when it came to contemporary Australian writing: Tim Winton and Peter Carey. There was a sense of weariness in these references, even while most praised the skill and in no way disparaged their success. When other writers considered the question of being Australian, they compared themselves against these elements: Australian vernacular; bush and beach, explicit explorations of colonisation or national history.
‘I get very frustrated by the sense that rural culture is where all the authenticity is happening,’ said Cunningham, who was one of the key publishers responsible for the ‘grunge’ wave of young Australian writers in the 1990s – which was really, in hindsight, urban fiction. Her alumni include Fiona McGregor (Au Pair, Chemical Palace, Suck My Toes), and Luke Davies (Candy).
Scribe fiction publisher Aviva Tuffield is an enthusiastic champion of Australian fiction; she started Scribe’s fledgling list nearly six years ago, in 2006, after a long stint as deputy editor of Australian Book Review. Describing her thought process when it comes to commissioning writers, she said, ‘I’m thinking – maybe wrongly – that audiences are looking for good writing, by writers who live here, that has an Australian accent, or really talks about what they know – the things that are most relevant to them. But it’s not narrowly defined at all. I think the definitions of bush and beach have been outdated for quite a long time.’
Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of the editors of The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature agreed, saying that we’ve moved ‘well past’ the city– bush split once looming large in our literature, and that contemporary Australian literature is a broad field, with ‘many, many things that can fit under this umbrella’.
Goldsworthy reflected on the recent history of this evolution, drawing on the expertise and hands-on experience of her decades of work in the field (including as an editor of Australian Book Review, a Miles Franklin judge and an Australian Literature academic). ‘English departments in universities in the 1960s were run by English people,’ she said. ‘It was a British view. No such thing as Australian literature.’ The resistance to Australian literature in universities lingered as late as the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by fights to get migrant literature, indigenous literature and writing by women taught and read. ‘There was a great swathe of short story anthologies that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s really heavily dominated by male writers and nobody even noticed let alone remarked on it,’ Goldsworthy recalled.
‘Then there was this kind of flowering of women’s writing in the 1980s with Helen Garner and Beverly Farmer and Kate Grenville; older women like Olga Masters who had begun to write in their middle age; and people like Thea Astley, who had been there all along.’
Viewed in this context, it seems that there has always been a war to recognise Australian writing that reflects the broader Australian experience – and we’re in the midst, it seems, of the next battle.
On the Adelaide Writers’ Week panel, novelist and former Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Malcolm Knox talked about The Slap’s journey to publication overseas. He said it came up against all kinds of difficulties because it was about suburban life in the Western world, rather than the exotic settings of the outback or a coastal surfing town. ‘In The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas is in Melbourne writing about his world in Melbourne with the confidence of Philip Roth writing about his world in New York,’ he said. He suggested that the reception of the book – then yet to be published outside Australia – would challenge international definitions of Australian writing, and would be a kind of test case for whether suburban Australian writing can travel. Of course, it went on to sell over 100,000 copies in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker.
Did The Slap mark an expansion of what we define as Australian writing? Not really, said most of those I spoke to. It’s simply a terrific work of storytelling. ‘If I asked friends in the UK if they would read a book set in suburban Australia, I think they’d say, “It depends entirely on who’s writing about it”,’ said Kerryn Goldsworthy. ‘Alice Munro writes about small towns in Canada, and she has millions and millions of people hanging on her every word. And it’s not because she’s writing about small towns in Canada. It’s because she’s really, really good at what she does.’
Goldsworthy did think, though, that The Slap was a perfectly timed novel that ‘hit the Zeitgeist smack in the middle’ and delivered a kind of story about contemporary Australia that readers were hungry for.
‘It was a novel whose time had come in the same way that Monkey Grip was. It was exactly the right time for someone to say what had been happening in these places and to these people for the past few years.’
Aviva Tuffield sees another salutary lesson for Australian writing in the success of The Slap. It’s an excellent example of the importance of supporting a writer through their early work, and nurturing them as they develop their career – something that is becoming rarer these days, with the advent of BookScan, which shows exactly how many copies an author has sold, making it tougher for them to be signed up for that notoriously difficult second novel.
Tuffield used the example of her author Chris Womersely, whose second novel Bereft they’d worked on intensively in the editorial process.
‘I think his third book will be something really ground-breaking,’ she said when we spoke in November 2010 – months before Bereft was longlisted then shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin. ‘You don’t know what you would have had by supporting local writers if you don’t do it,’ she reflected. ‘You don’t know when you’ll see the next Tim Winton or whoever – the next great writer who’ll come out of the fact that someone took a punt on their first book, and again on their second book and their third book.’
Sophie Cunningham also emphasised the significance of The Slap being Tsiolkas’s fourth novel, coming after his debut Loaded (one of the ‘grunge’ novels), his difficult second novel The Jesus Man, and the critically acclaimed Dead Europe, winner of The Age Book of the Year (2006). Both Tuffield and Cunningham made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen, whose third novel was The Corrections.
I asked Cunningham if she thought maybe there’s been a generational shift in the idea of what an ‘Australian’ writer can be. (And, reflecting now, perhaps that shift hasn’t yet made its way to the Miles Franklin judging panel.) She agreed that people like Tsiolkas – and Nam Le, whose worldwide phenomenon The Boat was published simultaneously in New York and was set all over the world – are opening up that definition.
Back to the time of writing, and the all-male, rural, historically set Miles shortlist. It’s been heartening to see the widespread public reaction against the lack of diversity, from writers, critics, and passionate readers alike. ‘I think the “Australian Voice” is a multicultural one and an urbanised one,’ wrote Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages and Pages, president of the Australian Booksellers’ Association. ‘While Australia is a large land mass, the overwhelming majority of Australians live on the coastal fringe in cities and towns.’ A commenter on his blog replied, ‘One of the reasons I read less and less Australian “literary” fiction is that it’s often of little relevance to me – blokey, historical and rural – all things that I’m not.’ Bookseller Martin Shaw of Readings Carlton believes that most enthusiastic readers ‘want to read something quite regularly that’s set in their own time and place … they’re looking for something that’s sort of explaining their world to them’.
That’s why Australian writing is still important. It reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions. Not all Australian writing speaks to all Australians – that would be an absurd notion. But the diversity of our writing represents the diversity of Australia itself. And that’s a good thing – something that, it seems, Australian readers are increasingly keen to see reflected in the kind of Australian writing we value.
The Miles Franklin debate is not simply about one prize, albeit our leading national literary prize. It’s an argument about who we are. ‘I like to see my world represented in art,’ said Charlotte Wood.
I think the same is true of most of us. It doesn’t have to be about the bush or the beach. It can be as varied and universal as an Australian accent.
Thanks to all the talented writing, publishing and bookselling people who took time out of their busy lives to share their thoughts on this subject. Not all were able to be directly quoted in the article, but all made valuable contributions to the conversation. Thanks to: Patrick Allington, Jon Bauer, Sophie Cunningham, Lisa Dempster, Chris Flynn, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Martin Shaw, Louise Swinn, Charlotte Wood and Chris Womersley.