Flicking through an old issue of Overland (edition 182) I came across an essay by Malcolm Knox entitled ‘Pushing Against the Real World: The Case for “Original” Australian Fiction’. It sparked my interest – I was grappling with similar ideas at the time – especially by mentioning a paper delivered by Mark Davis in 2005 in which he argued that the ‘Australian literary novel’ is suffering a slow and inevitable demise. Substituting ‘original’ for ‘literary’ (on the grounds that originality is more ubiquitous than concepts of the literary allow), Knox makes a persuasive case for the importance of originality in Australian fiction. After some reflection, I would like to extend his argument to include not just fiction but all writing in Australia and, most particularly, writing about Australia.
First we need a means of distinguishing the original from the ‘popular’. Following Knox, I’ll appropriate David Foster Wallace’s definition: the popular tells us what we (think we) already know, whereas the original aims to transform what we know. Popular writing is formulaic and clichéd: it acknowledges audience expectations and faithfully meets them. It bears no relation to the real world, Knox writes, because it is writing that apes other writing, rather than reality. Original writing, on the other hand, confronts our expectations head-on. It describes the world in ways we have never heard it described before, and thus transforms our understanding. Knox is at pains to stress that the two can happily coexist. Original writing may be found in books that, for all intents and purposes, would otherwise be viewed as popular, and vice versa. But above all, Knox concludes, the world needs original thinkers: artists rather than ‘content suppliers’.
Let me narrow the focus slightly: Australia needs original thinkers. And again: Australia needs original writers.
The nature of the need is twofold. On the one hand it relates to politics. I can’t have been the only Australian to feel I had been thrust into another world while reading Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man. Cocooned in my metropolitan upbringing, I had never in my life imagined the Australia that is an everyday reality for residents of Palm Island and the Gulf Country. How many hundreds – thousands – of other Australias are there? As a country we are profoundly deluded. Catchcries like ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’ nestle hard up against shocking disparities between the average living standards of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Parochial ideals of ‘Australian-ness’ remain firmly entrenched in political vocabulary despite our remarkable cultural diversity. And the little Aussie battlers of this nation seem astonishingly reluctant to honour the extraordinary efforts some people will go to in order to seek asylum on our shores.