The first task of an editor of a volume of essays is to arrive at a working definition of the form. Accepting that an essay is a ‘shortish piece of non fiction on a focused subject, often written from a personal point of view’, Robert Drewe then proceeds to declare his editorial objective:
I wanted to showcase those subjects which thoughtful and talented Australian writers were absorbed by in this particular year; indeed (I thought), wouldn’t it be good to show what this country, and its culture, was about in 2010.
In judging the success of this collection it is impossible to lay aside Drewe’s views on what Australia was about in 2010. As a summer read, it stacks up. As a snapshot of contemporary Australia, I’m not so sure. Let’s begin with some simple statistics: 33 essays; 19 male and 14 female writers – a spread of journalists, academics, novelists, scientists, poets and commentators; six essays republished from The Monthly; six from Fairfax; ten (!) from literary journals; two from News Ltd and the remainder from lectures, reviews, online sources and catalogues. No surprises here. A good representation of sources and writers.
The content is equally varied. Musings on marriage and art; reportage from Gaza, Marysville, Mullumbimby and Kalgoorlie; Patrick White; reflections on ethnicity and culture; the Minogues; the body and the gaze; animal psychology; language and class; vegetarians who smoke; plant provenance; crime; Rudd’s demise; addiction; federalism; menstruation; witch doctors; and burial plots. Enough angles and issues for him or her not to be disappointed when the Christmas wrapping comes off and for the book to collect a bucket of sand over the break.
Social worker and theologian Lorna Hallahan collected the 2009 Calibre prize for her essay on the ‘stareable body’, ‘On Being Odd’. Following Michel de Montaigne, Hallahan vows: ‘Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.’
I claim a wonderful profile because my body is mutilated and odd, and I get around unconventionally…
Mutual wonderment relies on suspending my own repressive rationality and entering the social intensity of a staring moment, of recognising in my starer a person of wonderful profile, I can govern my own reactions, stay with the gaze, not look away in shame, but seek a mutual recognition – poignant and potent.
Hallahan has some fun with Montaigne’s view that women with crooked bodies often make excellent lovers; and like the French master of correspondence, whom she obviously admires as an essayist, Hallahan’s voice remains clear and intimate throughout, as if talking to a friend. Intensely personal, the essay never strays into mawkishness, preferring wit and cold insight to make the point.
Sunil Badami, when asked ‘Where you from, mate?’, cannot convince new acquaintances that he was born in Blacktown and grew up in Greystanes in Sydney’s western suburbs. His essay’s lightness of tone does not conceal the seriousness of the writer’s intent.
Just as I cannot disavow my Indianess, how can I deny the role my Westieness has played in my own history, my own personal journey, in my life and writing? … After all, a culture’s artists aren’t its privileged informants but its outsiders, always on the margins looking in, not offering new certainties but new ways of questioning accepted ones – like Westie Asians, accidental Orientals, from Blacktown to Chinatown, all of us double-outsiders, looking in from the edge of elsewhere…
Crime fiction writer Shane Maloney found himself an accidental insider when he visited his mate Lindsay Tanner at Parliament House on the day Kevin Rudd was deposed by Julia Gillard. He swears Tanner gave nothing away and that no-one saw the knife coming. As Rudd braved his way through that excruciating post-coup press conference, Maloney, along with most of the nation, struggled to understand what he was witnessing. His essay is anecdotal and airy enough for summer reading, eschewing any attempts at serious analysis in favour of the relish of a crime writer’s good fortune. I suppose Drewe and his publisher thought we’d all had enough of federal politics by Christmas and that a bit of bemused head scratching would suffice. Fair enough.
Drewe calls on heavier hitters to deliver intellectual substance on the state of the nation.
As for what Australia is and has always been about, one could do no better than the clear cultural analysis of Guy Rundle and David Malouf.
In his essay ‘The States of the Nation’, Malouf has a go at federalism, place and national identity, beginning by arguing that during the 2000 centenary of federation did not strike deeply:
[in] the hearts of those who, without hesitation or doubt, call ourselves Australian, and have a vivid sense of what the country itself is, but in our daily lives, and in the place where our feelings are most touched, have little interest in the idea of nation.
Malouf observes that Australians are comfortable with notions of nationhood when applied to competitive sport but that most of us are more concerned with local issues than with those writ large by lofty notions of state and nation. Assiduously avoiding the word ‘republic’, Malouf argues that states are:
not only redundant and wasteful but also obstructive, and should go. The federal government alone would be left to govern, with a system of regional bodies beneath it.
The essay, published in August 2010, the month of the federal election, was clearly intended as a barometric reading of a nation under pressure but one which refrains from the spotty business of partisan politics. Malouf draws on cricket, Anzac Day, racism and reconciliation in a rather too predictable account of what Australia is about. His perfect compound sentences fail to dig very deep into the mechanics of power in Australia and yet political, economic and social power structures are the key determinants of national identity. And how can the rising tide of ‘southern cross’ jingoism swirling around Australia Day be ignored in this discussion? What of its class origins, political dynamics and influence on the character of the nation now and into the future?
Guy Rundle turns in an interesting piece on avant-gardism and state subsidy of the arts, a matter which Drewe obviously feels goes to the heart of contemporary Australian culture. Rundle argues that there is an unhealthy contradiction in the practice of radical art accepting state funding.
My point is … that the entire role of the modernist, avant garde or difficult artist in contemporary society is transformed when the decades of bipartisan political commitment effectively render support of it permanent and ongoing … Avant gardism lives off the sense that it is challenging existing understandings, relations, assumptions – including those marshalled by the state as ideology. State support and encouragement bring a contradiction into the heart of that practice.
However, in his defence of an authentic (and dead) avant-garde Rundle falls short of a useful analysis of state power over cultural production.
So the practice of high or avant-garde culture can’t be made meaningful on the grounds that it is outside, resistant, disordering, liberating. It’s now another aesthetic in the mix, its state funding defensible on various grounds…
It is where state power facilitates cultural production, with no explicit control over content yet for its own broader formal purposes, that artists often fail to critically assess what is involved. It is my argument that they should, and that this is part of a wider process of reflecting on the role of the avant-garde, modernist and high art practices in contemporary society.
I’m left wondering how effective Rundle’s implicit calls for the artistic underclass to send back their grant cheques will be. Perhaps another way of approaching a cultural revolution of the kind Rundle implies would be to unpick the power relations at work in public subsidy of the art forms that suck up most of the taxpayers’ cultural dollar. Clearly, these are not community and experimental arts or literary journals.
A number of the contributions in this volume are excellent pieces of journalism but, to my mind, do not satisfy as essays simply because they lack the meandering subjectivity I find essential to the form. Examples include Kathy Marks on mining, Paul McGeogh on the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara’s humanitarian aid journey to Gaza, Melissa Lucashenko on the playground death of high school student Jai Morcom, Anne Manne’s chilling account of the death by starvation and neglect of a young child, and Nicholas Rothwell’s account of tribal medicine and power relations on Elcho Island. In ‘Tears of the Sun’, Marks poses two important questions: ‘How sustainable is mining, with its colossal environmental footprint? And just who is reaping the rewards?’ But the essay shies away from substantive answers. Marks is largely content to draw vivid pictures of mining communities and their colourful characters and to point at big holes in the ground without ever skewering, for example, the distribution of wealth accrued from mining. The essay amounts to a flyover of a pivotal issue.
I found many of these journalistic contributions to be very accomplished exercises in providing publishers with product, the implication being that there is a certain kind of journalism readers prefer. I don’t mean to be unkind here because there is some great writing from some of our leading exponents of the form but, it seems to me, there is a timidity at the heart of Australian journalism that is in itself symptomatic of what contemporary Australia is about.
There are some lovely moments of whimsy in the collection, which is not at all to suggest the essays are without substance. Tim Flannery on elephant psychology, Amanda Hooton’s backstage account of the Miss Universe competition, and Gerard Windsor’s search for a decent place to lay his bones to rest all stand out, as does poet Les Murray’s account of his contributions to the Australian lexicon. Having studied under the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary as an undergraduate, I appreciated Murray’s affection for the project of collecting and classifying the Australian idiom. ‘To me,’ he writes, ‘from the very start, words were poor people’s treasures, infinite in variety and potential at no cost.’ Interestingly, Murray’s essay contains one of the very few references to social class in Best Australian Essays 2010, when he comments on the dictionary editors’ rejection of some of his suggestions for inclusion.
My earlier contributions were perennially invalidated by lack of a printed source. I was sometimes to provide one by writing a poem in which the word appeared, but that was too transparent. My problem was one of class: I drew typically from a level of vocabulary seen as lower even than that used in urban Broad speech. The real oral language of country folk had had few literary outings since the late-nineteenth century.
Murray’s affection for what might be called a rural underclass stems from his direct experience growing up in those communities and, therefore, experiencing their living language as part of a rich cultural repository.
Every essay in the collection is worthy of mention, most, but not all, for good reasons. Overall, the volume seems to me to exemplify not so much what Australia in 2010 was about, an all too ambitious enterprise for any editor, but, rather, is a collection of stories, insights, facts and opinions that the publisher and editor deemed saleable to a clearly defined readership in the pre-Christmas rush.
Surely, Australia is about the two unwinnable, protracted wars we are fighting and the political chicanery behind them. But there is no mention of these wars. And wasn’t Australia in 2010 about the largely hidden effects of what has become known as The Intervention in indigenous communities? And as much as I am sympathetic to the editor’s decision not to include John Birmingham’s article on WikiLeaks, wasn’t Australia just a little bit about one of our citizens changing the game of journalism and opening up a global debate on free speech, even before the current tranche of cables was leaked? As for questions of class and power, well, it is understandable that these are not raised in Drewe’s collection because so few writers tackle them even when given the chance, as were many of the writers in this volume. Perhaps, as a nation, we have outgrown class to such an extent that it is not even on the radar of public consciousness. Or perhaps, like the mechanics of social, economic and political power, we would prefer not to read about it on the beach.