The question of queer sexuality and LGBTQI realities within young adult fiction has not been without discussion in recent times. Archer recently ran a series assessing the topic from every possible angle, and GQ proclaimed that ‘The Bright Future of Queer Literature Is the Young-Adult Novel.’ But the Australian curriculum – or more generally the accessibility of non-traditional youth literature – is seemingly its own beast. Our moral panics around homosexuality and transsexuality are sewn into our pedagogical fabric; the hand-wringing exclamations of won’t somebody think of the children! ring out across the hallways of time.
The need for pedagogically queer stories distributed Australia-wide comes to a head when we consider the ongoing, sinister mistrust held for non-heterosexual relationships in modern Australia, seen most uncomfortably in the marriage postal survey and conservative backlash against Safe Schools. Outside our most concentrated cultural centres, fear and distrust toward LGBTQI minorities remains potent still, whether it be in small town suburbia or more inland, where hypermasculinity is rigidly tied to hard work and to ‘usefulness’.
In the US, the youth lit has welcomed a new cachet of stories that elaborate upon romantic love and introduce queerness in a way that rivals the predestined, all-encompassing hugeness we take for granted in Hollywood young love stories. Characters once limited to the periphery in books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower now have the ability to become inspiration for a leading role. Sandy Hall’s Been Here All Along takes all the most obliging clichés from teen TV shows – its precocious title unsurprisingly aligns with that of a Hannah Montana episode – and flips them to allow for a queer narrative involving a studious, unpopular boy and his distinctly quarterback-like next door neighbour the Kyle. In the spirit of romantic friendship, their journey towards queerness is sometimes incongruent, often complicated and remains unresolved for the first half of the book, before finally aligning. It’s absolutely a palette an uninitiated reader could draw from, embellishing the almost fairytale-like story with one they wish to vicariously experience. If it seems melodramatic, it’s still inspiration for something exhilarating to take place.
To look back on the much storied, erstwhile history of Australian YA, meanwhile, is to come to the realisation that all roads lead back to Winton.
His voice above all others is the ultimate cornerstone – the national canon does not only defer to him merely as a storyteller and literary figurehead, but one whose themes reign supreme, his archetypes and scripts fleshed out into historicity. They now define the formative landscape of young masculinities and sexualities within the Australian context. It becomes difficult to know whether a firm and anthropological discussion of YA can open those doors and provoke change.
Looking back on the much storied, erstwhile history of Australian YA, all roads lead back to Winton.
The sensorial, often palpably gritty quality of Winton’s Lockie Leonard novels still sticks with me when I think about the frank appeal of sexual discovery. Winton’s voice is unglamorous and strips away the mystique and low hanging fruit of eroticism, instead detailing the wetness of puberty, those leaking and frighteningly uncooperative bodies, reactions linked to sudden and unfamiliar arousal – the strange mix of guilt, surprise and desire that colours our pubescent experiences.
The youth literature of my adolescence, insofar as it delved into the mechanics of the body and the wry and messy intercourse of growing up, acted as a kind of solvent. Although I can’t say I found significant inspiration in Winton’s writing flair and forthcomingness beyond that, I realise retrospectively how it must have influenced my male peers, so desperate to assert their heterosexuality that they over-exaggerated their attraction to women, curating sexual libraries of porn videos on their phones and exhibiting them in crowded circles as if they were rare trading cards. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and it impressed their understanding of sexual roles, of power and bluster and discernment when it came to who does what and what enters where. Porn in this instance had overt distinctions between roleplay and reality but sometimes it was less clear, and that blurring offered signals to the viewer upon how they could interpret and run with the story.
It’s interesting that now, with the release of his latest book, Winton has been so fixated on criticising masculinity as a structure, and what it does to young boys – although his books have never really ‘celebrated’ it, their self-centredness and male solipsism often haven’t allowed room for anything to breathe outside of it. ‘We should not look away’, Winton pleads: ‘we should engage with those boys. Because it is only by attending to the particular that we can get beyond the automatic, collective responses toxic masculinity occasions, to see the damaged humanity beneath.’ But do young men really need to be misdiagnosed, become further convinced of their importance? Lundy Bancroft has studied patterns of narcissism in male offenders, and writes that this ‘well-meaning but misguided approach’ of coddling has only created more male egotists. They are perfectly capable of expressing their needs, he says – we need to convince them that other people around them can do that and are important outside of their inner world, too.
The youth literature of my adolescence, insofar as it delved into the mechanics of the body and the wry and messy intercourse of growing up, acted as a kind of solvent.
That isn’t to say Winton’s dominion is wholly negative – Winton’s straightforwardness is intended to be honest, in service to a brand of working class Australiana, and there is certainly a place for depictions of mouthy and unsentimental teenage boys enthusiastically fingering their girlfriends by the beach. And indeed, that ennui and hyperreal country Australiana has its place; but it’s an uncompromising and singular idea of regionality that may otherwise seem oppressive, as it delivers itself – arguably – in a fiercely heterosexual (or nuclear) manner. In her essay ‘Liquid Elites and Bonded Shame: Winton and Class Identity’, Lyn McCredden compares the oral history of Winton rightfully to the working class-ness of Christos Tsiolkas, whose work moves away from hetero-ness but still remains strictly unromantic.
[There is a] wry affection for a peculiarly Australian dagginess and the rhythms and rituals of small-town life. Everything is observed with equal parts poetry and realism: the social life that revolves around the CWA and the town’s twin pubs, the unintentional kitsch of a fishing parade, the banter over the counter at Bart’s butcher shop and the reverence towards his geniality and decency.
The first half of Throsby’s book promises a delayed sort of coming of age story about the ties we share amongst the people living amongst us, the inescapable interconnectivity of small townships and the way a death or vanishing sends ripples through a community. But it is equally an insight into the personal goings-on and formative queries of protagonist Jean, who must process the central mystery while also calibrating her sense of reality and emerging bisexuality.
One of Throsby’s most pleasing tangents into interiority comes about three quarters of the way into the book, wherein a beatific crush on a new classmate turns into skin contact, and two girls realise how to make chemistry into movement, and discover intimacy. It is here within these pages that Throsby’s writing suddenly blossoms, the vibrancy and colour becoming almost lyrical, painstakingly detailing the colour of the late-afternoon light, the material of the girls’ clothes.
Herborn’s SMH review describes this scene as ‘an almost wordless seduction, two comets of lust and excitement on a collision path on the fringes of the town.’ Almost without language, they find their way down a hallway and collapse onto a bed, creating a refuge from the sinisterness around them where only two people, hearts expanding, can meet. It is a scene transformative in its power and is distinctly unlike the world shown in the rest of the book. Although the cypher of queerness is left as a textural overlay, it still presents a kind of narrative that veers from the masculinised small-town cliché.
If you put Goodwood side-by-side with some of the more obvious choices of queer youth canon, there’s something new to be harvested in this reading, and it offers an alternative to the masculinist narratives that have dominated Australian queer fiction. Gay male coming-out narratives are intoxicating because they propose a contradiction to the utilitarian Australian view of life, so for better or for worse they are hypervisible and sensationalised. But beyond that, everything else gets relegated to the fringes.
If you put Goodwood side-by-side with some of the more obvious choices of queer youth canon, it offers an alternative to the masculinist narratives that have dominated Australian queer fiction.
Even if Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded remains a seminal book, other depictions of youthful sexuality remain brazen and unapologetically forward. Anything that strays from this path, that questions how central and powerful masculine energy really is, is seen as an immediate threat to the tradition. Holding the Man, even as a nonfiction book, might be the clear exception; even David Malouf, who has been touted as a figurehead of post-colonial narratives, has denied that his first book Johnno was a ‘gay novel.’
But this is a trend which shows signs of abating. Alison Evans’ Ida uses sci-fi to reassess the consequences of personal choice and includes intimate relationships with non-binary characters, without their non-binariness being overly consequential in and of itself. Similarly, despite not being necessarily marketed as young adult fiction, the bite-size reprieves in Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points – and the collection’s titular short story – show queer domesticity in magical and lethal, but still unremarkable, moments of suburbia. Down captures gentle understandings of love and connection without fanfare:
He knew where Henry had gone; he could hear the water running and his cheerful, sporadic whistle. But half asleep, he’d started to panic. All he wanted was to see Henry, to know he was still there. And yet how ridiculous, how pathetic, to stagger into the bathroom, choking for air, terrified, when only ten minutes before Henry’s legs had been wrapped around his as he slept.
Imagine if these stunningly written epigraphs could be received by young men coming to terms with the trappings of masculinity, exposing them to new modes of intuiting and emoting. If we were to encourage more of this in schools, these little slices of narrative could provide necessary humanisation and complexity. Like many others, encounters with a form of literature that stepped outside of homogenous fantasy novels, bildungsroman books and vaguely young adult centred narratives, became deeply formative for me when it came to understanding sexuality.
But these kind of narratives have long been sparse when we draw back the curtain on Australian YA. For all the assumptions that we might be more egalitarian than our American allies, and the increased representation of recent years, we have a way to go. Storytelling can be educational even if it is anecdotal, and can provide emotional resources, ways to reinscribe the internal guilt-tripping of homophobia, to become more comfortable with the nuances of gender and sexuality as an opportunity for self realisation.