feature | Peter Craven debates Ken Gelder

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008


At the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival Overland hosted a debate between two of Australia’s prominent literary critics. Peter Craven and Ken Gelder have reworked their presentations here.

Peter Craven starts:

It’s a funny thing for me to be debating, or at any rate discussing, the future of Australian writing with Ken Gelder. You see, Professor Gelder and I represent very different things. I’m a shirtsleeves critic, the kind of chap who’s always plagued the activity of writing by reporting back in the mar­ketplace and saying whether or not he reckons it’s any good, whether it’s worth reading – even, on occasions, (and this gets tricky) whether it might have claims to be considered literature.

Ken Gelder, on the other hand, is to be found at the centre of one of those places that used to be thought of – and think of themselves – as de­partments of literature, or simply ‘English’ (as in ‘English literature’), but which now are concerned with the broad study of culture and with questions of cultural production (as it’s called), and with the widest range of stuff with which people might amuse themselves – with movies and television, with soap operas and cartoons, with kung fu and computer games.

And, of course, all this stuff is mighty in the world of the university. I’m told that Ken’s depart­ment at the University of Melbourne – in its day the department where Sam Goldberg and Vincent Buckley warred and Germaine Greer first studied English literature as an undergraduate – has now even absorbed Fine Arts (the department Bernard Smith presided over) so that we get the kind of budgetary debate that leads to questions like, ‘How are we going to afford those new studies of Giotto and Picasso when we have to buy computer games?’

Well, in some ways it was ever thus. You can ar­gue that English departments have always offered the Mickey Mouse courses of their day. Even in Matthew Arnold’s time, in the late nineteenth cen­tury – and then increasingly after the First World War – ‘English’ departments (we’re told this in the rather self-infatuated genealogies written by people from the places that have replaced them) were a response to the new mass democracy and the new mass literacy that went along with it. The estab­lishment world had to educate its new masters, or at least contain the uppishness of its old servants. And because they couldn’t be expected to master Latin and Greek (and so read Horace and Homer), they were to be given the compensation prize of Shakespeare and Milton: that would civilise them and keep them in their place.

Now I happen to disagree fundamentally with the interpretation of this history as some sort of class conspiracy: I think that the right to appreci­ate the finest writing that has been written, an understanding of why some writing is better and constitutes a form of truth, this supposedly elitist position, this belief in a hierarchy of values, which wants to put its money on the absoluteness of the distinction between a play by Shakespeare and an episode of Lost, a novel by Patrick White and a novel by Shane Maloney, is one of the most funda­mental things our democracy can give to a human being. It is, to use the words that Shaw put into the mouth of Henry Higgins, ‘the thing that separates soul from soul and class from class’.

We need to get this much clear before we broach Australian writing and what future it might have.

That’s why Ken Gelder thinks I’m bad news and the fact that he disagrees with me about these matters is why I think he’s a barbarian.

Don’t get me wrong. We both occupy parts of the same patch. We can both, I would imagine, recognise a quotation from Shakespeare at twenty paces, and we can both enjoy grovelling around in the mosh pit of ‘trash’ writing. I wrote some of the early reviews of my friend Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan stories that may have established his reputation. Ken has written a book, I believe, about Australian popular fiction. Ken is a professor of cultural studies and I am a literary critic who makes a living as a cultural journalist. He grades his students’ accounts of popular culture and I have in my time written many thousands of words about Harry Potter and James Bond, about Brad Pitt and Desperate Housewives and Big Brother for mass circulation newspapers – just as I have about Shakespeare and Proust, about Helen Garner and Gerald Murnane and J.M. Coetzee and Sonya Hartnett.

Ken Gelder and I are both concerned with trash and treasure. I love the treasure even as I enjoy the trash. Ken, I think, wants to let the trash into the treasure-trove. For him it’s all trash, all treasure. Of course he also has a lively sense of his position as a treasure-keeper. That’s why, as a board member of Meanjin, he helped get rid of Ian Britain, who was the best editor the magazine had seen in ages.

But enough of these matters. Let’s look at the objective situation that confronts us both.

Australian publishing in anything like its present phase is not more than thirty years old. Never mind the fact that in the nineteenth century (Ken would know all about this) The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was a bestseller round the Empire. Nor the fact – which is haunting enough in its way – that the novels of Patrick White and Christina Stead and Martin Boyd were published when no-one would accuse Australian publishing of autonomous good health.

Obviously an activity like publishing never com­pletely falls out of human ken. As a teenager and a young man I was reading White’s The Vivisector and Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes, and The Americans, Baby by Frank Moorhouse, long before the phase of Australian publishing, the exponen­tially increased and diversified Australian publish­ing, which had its first massive flowering when Brian Johns was the head of Penguin, and Hilary McPhee and Di Gribble published Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, when all that got underway.

We are now at the point where a significant frac­tion of what Australians read is written by Austral­ians and, courtesy of Professor Allan Fels’ ruling on importation, a significant fraction of the world’s ‘big’ books (in terms of potential sales) are actually printed in Australia. To take, from my own shelves, a few titles at random, published in the last stretch, that’s as true of Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife as it’s true of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence and Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost.

I have no objection to the populaire: I’ve inter­viewed Jeffrey Archer and I can see why people cotton on to his sheer storytelling skills in an age that doesn’t have too many Somerset Maughams: I think I know why Ian Fleming will remain peren­nially popular (partly an imperial level of cultural production hype, running in tandem with the films, and partly the very competent prose and the sensuous feeling for life) and I’ve exchanged wondering glances with one of the country’s best trashmeisters, a highly literate man who couldn’t believe the gaps in the plotting of one novel – liter­ary in aspiration anyway – Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist (a book I preferred, by the way, to what many consider Flanagan’s masterpiece, Gould’s Book of Fish).

And let’s get a sense of proportion about all of this. There are some people like the New York literary agent Andrew Wylie who believe that it’s literary fiction that offers the Picassos, the putative masterpieces that constitute a long-term invest­ment. You can disagree with what Wylie opts for – a writer like Elliot Perlman, say – you can dispute the quality of his eye, the level of connoisseurship, the way you can quarrel with the fads of the art market (say, with the Saatchi level as opposed to the Lucian Freud), and still think he’s right in principle.

What I would argue – and this is a fear widely held at every level of the publishing and literary world – is that merely commercial imperatives – or, let’s say, commercial imperatives that deal in base products – are in danger of prevailing in the contemporary book market.

You hear this from every quarter of publishing – decisions are being made by the wrong kind of marketing people who do not know about books. Decisions which should be in the hands of publish­ers and senior editorial people are being overturned on the grounds of profitability by people who are radically inexpert when it comes to the object being sold.

The reason why this harrows the soul of a good many people who agree about little else is that pub­lishing has traditionally always been different. Of course publishing has always been in the business of selling books but traditionally its raison d’être was publishing books that people believed in. In T.S. Eliot’s day Faber and Faber would publish The Great Escape – there’s nothing wrong with The Great Escape – but it would also publish Finnegans Wake or The Alexandria Quartet. What people would hope for, of course – and every so often get – was a Lord of the Flies which would press all the buttons at once.

What alarms many people in the literary world at the moment is that we may be in the midst of a market that is so free it’s at the point of being entropic – that is, it has so few quality controls that it ceases to be trustworthy in any sense.

This was what Susan Sontag came to fear in the latter part of her life: that the production and promotion of books was, bit by bit, falling into the hands of people who did not care about them. Of course this is always going to be a rela­tive perception, a matter of degree. In my time as a shirtsleeves critic I have written about, and I suppose, evaluated, and, in evaluating, promoted or expressed doubts about, many writers. Twenty-five years ago Scripsi, the magazine I founded with Michael Heyward (now the publisher of Text) was publishing Helen Garner and David Malouf and Gerald Murnane. It published Winton and Carey and Elizabeth Jolley, and it published them together with Raymond Carver and Julian Barnes. It was accused subsequently – and inanely – by Mark Davis of having established the current Australian canon by some conspiracy of insider trading, as if that were remotely possible.

I think one thing which is possible – and which is deeply disturbing – is that not only can publish­ing show a partial tendency to think books are just like selling soap, but the academic world – the world that is supposed to help preserve literature, that part of writing which has enduring claims on our attention – can fall into the same kind of delusion.

We are in fact dealing with a very complex cultural map and we are seeing writing split into different niche markets – sometimes complex ones, like that of highbrow trash, which is where Shane Maloney or John le Carré, James Lee Burke and Minette Walters might be placed. Or essentially popular novels like Elliot Perlman’s or, much more persuasively, Greg Roberts’ Shantaram (a book I launched) which are written by people with a belief in literature – and there is the very real risk that the most important writing in the world will be considered marginal because it will be decreed to be commercially so.

This has to be resisted. I’ve reviewed my own fair share of masterpieces from Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera through Murnane’s In­land and Amis’ London Fields and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and the poetry of Anne Carson or Les Murray.

If you want the answer to the old idiot question – who’s to say it’s a masterpiece? – there is only one answer: you and me, mate.

At the moment we have regnant in the academic world the strongest tendency to think that the whole of this business is relative and that nothing is ever valued as a masterpiece except because of its susceptibility to various vested interests.

I think this is poppycock. When I think of a postmodern atrocity like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Sui­cides, or the forthcoming novel by Murray Bail The Pages, I am staggered by how good the quality of the writing is.

The difficulty with some parts of the academic world is that they’re not interested in spotting the treasure in the midst of the trash, and they won’t accept the difference.

We now have the very weird phenomenon of professors who think the only treasure is the trash, that there is nothing but the clanging cash tills of different niche markets.

Everyone was taken aback a year ago when Australian publishers failed to recognise a chapter of Patrick White’s Eye of the Storm, and even more disconcerted when they defended themselves for rejecting this outmoded nonsense. Well, we now have a situation where some people in our universi­ties in the departments formerly known as English departments could not care less that Patrick White and Christina Stead are our greatest writers. (Not everyone – I sat at a conference last year organised by the Literature Board in which people from the universities and the literary world agreed on the necessity of hallowing the Australian classic.)

The trouble with this is that Australian writing can’t possibly have a future unless it establishes a sense of its own past and hence of its continuities. What hope have we got of maturing our sense of the significance of Helen Garner or Peter Carey, Elizabeth Jolley or David Malouf, Gerald Murnane or Peter Mathers, if we cease to be interested in the quality of our own past?

The kind of work Ivor Indyk does in republish­ing something like Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row is extraordinarily important, but it is a fact that Murnane’s work (which is revered by visual artists like Bill Henson or Philip Hunter) is no­where near as well known as Patrick White (or Randolph Stow) was when people cared about the power and glory of Australian writing in the university.

Generations of Australian students should be reading the best of our writers. They should be reading Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story, they should be reading Garner’s The Children’s Bach and re­alising that the best of our writing – Les Murray’s poetry, John Forbes’ or Gwen Harwood’s poetry – will compare well with the best that is produced elsewhere.

We are now in a position where we no longer re­alise that Take Me to Paris, Johnny, by John Foster, or the cycle of autobiography being undertaken by Craig Sherborne, which begins with Hoi Polloi, will bear comparison with Hal Porter’s The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony and its successors.

I fear for the Australian writers who are coming up. For Nam Le, say, the Vietnamese Australian writer whose book of stories The Boat is about to come out: the first story of that collection stunned me with its power.

People in our universities need to learn, all over again, to care about this kind of thing. It’s an urgent imperative of our national culture – and coming from a small country thrusts cultural nationalism on you by necessity as an objective absolute.

It’s essential to maintaining our culture. Not many people are thinking about the classics that have come among us. Who teaches, say, Peter Mathers these days, or Francis Webb?

We are in a situation where the universities are not according to the greatest writers on earth – to David Foster Wallace, say – anything like the atten­tion that was once given to Pynchon, and which put the madness of his genius into the water supply.

And please don’t give me nonsense about how outmoded the grand narrative of the canon is. If you don’t adhere to the canon please just give me the courage of your marked preferences. Years ago I remember my old enemy Simon During had the guts to give a seminar about Gerald Murnane and that was because he believed at least in the hierarchy of literary pleasures, however materialist his conception was.

It seems to me this is vital to the future of writ­ing, Australian and otherwise.

We have to teach the best books we can find, even if we are relativists. Okay, be a relativist and teach the cream of your niche market: teach your De Lillo, teach your Coetzee, teach your Murray Bail.

Of course I believe it goes beyond that. I be­lieve with T.S. Eliot that literature is a timeless order that is modified by every subsequent work of literature. But you don’t have to believe that. What you have to do (like an atheist who believes in a principled life) is act as though you believe it. Otherwise literature, Australian and otherwise, has no future.

I had the feeling when I debated these matters with Ken Gelder in person at the Sydney Writers’ Festival that I was not only not on the same page, but that I was reading from a different volume. Ken Gelder was at pains to emphasise that his own department (as opposed to its cousin, the media and cultural conglomerate) was less beglamoured by the software toys and mixed media forms, and more intent on a text-oriented attention to canons and canon formations. I did not disbelieve him but in any substantive sense the case remains (as the Scottish legal equivocators say) unproven.

I must say that I found it worrying when Ken Gelder embarked on what he seemed to imagine was some form of recuperation of the canon. Professor Gelder is an admirer of Frank Moor­house’s League of Nations novels – Grand Days and Dark Palace – which he seemed to imagine full of historical grit and political point and, be­yond that, to be very good. He is not alone in his enthusiasm, alas, but the Moorhouse who wrote with such moody verve about Edith Campbell Berry as an old woman in one of his best books, Forty-Sixteen, represents her maddeningly in these huge-scale novels. If Lionel Trilling is right that in Tolstoy’s fiction the character exists in the medium of the novelist’s love, then these Geneva tales of the diplomatic and appeasing thirties world seem to exist in something like the medium of the novelist’s gobsmacked infatuation. Moorhouse’s heroine is clearly delicious and enchanting to her creator but in a way that the novelist goes no way towards embodying in the novel. If we might stick to the comparison with Tolstoy for a moment, it seems too true that everything about these novels is op­posite to what Nabokov meant when he said that things in Tolstoy happened at precisely the right speed. Everything in a novel like Dark Places takes twice as much time as it should.

It is an odd book to single out as a touchstone of quality for Australian fiction and its near rela­tions over the past twenty years. So what general reflections might be meaningful? Gelder seemed to deplore the fact that Australian fiction was ‘inward’ rather than political, as if politics might serve as some badge of virtue. It’s certainly true that not much Australian fiction is overtly political in the manner of Amanda Lohrey’s The Morality of Gentlemen (Dos Passos meets Brechtian alienation devices in the context of harbour-front fights in 1950s Hobart) which was (to its great credit) re­printed by Vulgar Press over this period. And there have been political works in other areas. Stephen Sewell’s Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America is a pungent, extraordinarily powerful play about the contradic­tions of the War on Terror, and I have encountered no parallel to it in Australian fiction.

Of course, you can argue that Helen Garner’s The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, neither of them overtly novels though each of them wielding unreliable narrators, are deeply implicated in the weft and warp of politics in the deeper personalised sense. And each of them has an intimate family resemblance to her new ‘novel’ The Spare Room, again with the Garner figure doing her best to win the unlikeability stakes.

The difficulties with what could be gleaned of Ken Gelder’s account was that much of it seemed to consist of taxonomies that lacked much in the way of classificatory coherence. It’s true that Andrew McGahan’s Praise was a form of grunge, but the movement (the thing that was supposed to parallel the supposed ‘dirty realism’ of Carver and Ford in the US) was primarily significant for McGahan himself, who was the only one of his fellows who did much with that scrupulous meanness of style. Much of the time Ken Gelder’s sheer statistical indiscriminateness leads him into categories that sound as far-fetched and waffling, though rather less coherent, than Polonius’ ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pas­toral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-histori­cal-pastoral’ in Hamlet.

I don’t wish to go any further in surveying the field and I have no desire for a comprehensive indiscriminateness. It seems impossible even to sketch the outline of what has happened in fiction over the last stretch without a recognition of how radically unequal all literary achievement is.

We should be grateful for the Peter Corrises and Shane Maloneys and Gabrielle Lords – the trash writers who make an idle pleasure seem like the most sparkling of diversions. It can be good, too, when a literary novelist – a Carmel Bird, say – joins their ranks. But we should not be misled by the fact that Henry James could be enchanted by Stevenson.

Of course Stevenson was a great artist as well as a yarn-spinner, though he was neither a James nor a Conrad. It’s possible to have your soul stolen away by a yarn like Kidnapped or an even greater one like Kipling’s Kim (so unpredictable with its lamas and dashing Muslims and the depth of its sympathy for sub-continental life) and still yearn for the greatest kind of literary art.

Northrop Frye says somewhere that one of the beginnings of cultural wisdom is to realise that you can take pleasure in something of slight value. Another, he says, is the even more sophisticated reflection that a bit of idle yarn-spinning can get the benefit of bearable prose. These are pleasing things to think on but they don’t, by and large, play a central part in the classics that help us live. One of the worries with Ken Gelder’s surveys is that he seems to carry his cultural studies indiscriminate­ness with him when it comes to the literature of his adoptive country. Of course Australia is happy to claim anyone who is happy to claim her, but I thought the British-born Gelder could have made rather more of those extraordinary minimalist works which J.M. Coetzee, starting with Elizabeth Costello, has written in our midst. Nor do I find the Australian settings or the assertions of Australian nationality in any way strained. These books, the most recent of which is Diary of a Bad Year – the one that separates into several narratives that the reader must pick up and leave as she chooses – di­vide readers, but they seem to me remarkable and remarkably dramatised meditations on the nature of life and the nature of art by the greatest living writer who chooses to call himself Australian.

Peter Craven is a literary critic, journalist and editor. With Michael Heyward, he co-founded the literary magazine Scripsi, which ran from 1981 to 1994. He was the founding editor of Quarterly Essay and of the Black Inc. Best Australian annuals (Essays, Stories, Poems).
© Peter Craven
Overland 192-spring 2008, pp. 65-70

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Ken Gelder responds:

It was interesting to ‘debate’ with Peter Craven at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, not least because I heard more about myself than perhaps I ever have before in such a short space of time. Unsurprisingly, I came to stand for the set of values Peter defined himself against, his role as a determined ‘gatekeeper’ to the world of Australian literary culture bluntly opposed to my own apparently undisciplined ‘cultural relativism’. (Nothing new here.)

For Peter, I am a university English academic who cannot make up his mind about what, in literature, really counts. I read too widely and, it seems, too indiscriminately. Peter casts a very small, precise net, while I apparently trawl the oceans. Literary criticism is therefore easy for him, a mostly untroubled process of ranking and judgement. One simply says that a few writers, like Gerald Murnane or Murray Bail, are great and ‘authentic’ and important, and lo and behold, they are – especially if you say so often enough, and insistently enough.

This is criticism-as-incantation. My own name is now sprinkled across these incantations, with Peter sounding rather like Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter novels, a pure-blood working tirelessly to keep Muggles like me at bay. The judgements themselves flow thick and fast, although they’re not always positive: David Malouf struggles with big themes, Kate Grenville is sometimes successful, sometimes not, Elliot Perlman has a bit of wit but is merely a yarner, Peter Carey is uneven. Even so, there are enough dazzling, ‘authentic’ novels to keep Peter going. A self-confessed ‘hack’ journalist, he has somehow managed to become more highbrow and judgement-driven than any English academic I know. He is a kind of anachronistic contradiction: part Grub Street and part Alexander Pope.

We can see this in the way Peter talks about ‘trash’, his term for popular culture and mass entertainment. For Peter – a dedicated disciple of Anglo-European modernism, of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce – ‘trash’ is the omnipresent enemy, the exact opposite of what literature should stand for. But Peter is also a professional reviewer who is sometimes asked to pay attention to these things. In fact, when he actually writes about popular culture, he generally does a much better job than he does when he writes about high literature. His article on Gretel Killeen from Big Brother was a memorable and spirited defence of this woman, clear in its intentions. A more recent piece on Big Brother 2008 was equally perceptive, showing just how much care Peter can give to the things he pretends to despise. On the other hand, his reviews of writers like Salman Rushdie or Graham Greene or any number of Australian novelists are muddled and mystificatory, a mosaic of overblown phrases and randomly chosen quotations from other great novelists that tries to imprint itself on reality by, rather optimistically, addressing the reader as ‘you’.

There is a certain amount of self-denial in an Alexander Pope-like journalist who inhabits Grub Street, writes about its pleasures, and yet routinely derides it. But Peter still believes wholeheartedly in Matthew Arnold’s view of the ‘best’ in civilised culture and Leavis’ view of the canon, both of which he earnestly invoked in his talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (along with a few Australian Arnoldians, like Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe). He believes in the ‘classics’ and is sure they make us better people. Because of this, he is constantly backward-looking, forever hauling up a short list of great writers we should all still be attending to but sadly no longer seem to be. He is what we used to call a ‘vertical’ or monogamous reader: burrowing down through a thin tunnel of great books, invoking them in the reviews he writes, returning to them without respite. But the cultural field these days is horizontal and promiscuous, not vertical and monogamous. It spreads outwards, covering all sorts of things, willy-nilly: literature, popular fiction, cinema, television, all kinds of media, everywhere.

The high Anglo-European literary canon competes for attention in this congested marketplace, and occasionally loses: this is one reason why great, modern Australian novelists like Patrick White are now out of print. For Peter, Australian publishers and English department academics are the villains, each wilfully letting these things die. Publishers, he thinks, are driven only by dollars and cents: a bottom-line view that is true in an obvious general way (just as it is true about the newspapers Peter reviews for), but much less so when we look at what gets published, in Australia and elsewhere, case by case. How else do we explain the myriad of novelists who still make it into print? Difficult writers like Delia Falconer (who is published by a large multinational), writers that Peter himself admires, as well as many others?

Some fine Australian literary novelists are indeed out of print – but not all. Many of Christina Stead’s novels are about to be reissued by Melbourne University Publishing. Vintage is producing a new modern ‘literary classics’ series that includes many modern and contemporary Australian novelists who have also since fallen by the wayside: like a favourite of Peter’s, Elizabeth Jolley. If he paid attention, Peter would see that the literary field is more accommodating than he seems to imagine.

Publishers are not solely responsible for letting once-canonical writers slip out of print, of course. Readerly interests and experiences are probably what count most. But Peter cannot bring himself to berate readers: he needs them on his side, which is why he persists with the second person singular. Instead, he blames English academics, like me. Peter thinks we all abandoned the literary canon long ago, giving it up for cartoons and computer games etc. But this is simply a dumb account of what we do, one that was wrong even in the early days when ‘Cultural Studies’ seemed as if it would displace ‘Literary Studies’ (which hasn’t happened). English departments continue to teach canonical literature, probably as much as they always did. A brief glance at tertiary courses in Australian literature around the country shows that Patrick White and other classic Australian literary writers are still well represented. So are many contemporary writers admired by Peter, like Murray Bail. In fact, English departments are one of the few places where ‘Australian Literature’ has any definition as a body of writing.

But English departments do other things as well because, as I have noted, the cultural field is horizontal as well as vertical. My own English program hasn’t given itself up to computer games, nor has it ‘absorbed’ Fine Arts as Peter suggests. (We’re both part of a larger School.) But we do cover a lot of ground, staff numbers permitting, simply because there is a lot of ground to cover. Not everything we do can be traced back to the prescriptive influence of T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold, nor could (or should) it be.

On the other hand, like any teachers of English, we make literary judgements ourselves – hopefully less throwaway ones than Peter’s. Aesthetic judgements are indeed one important component. But we think, too, about teachability and pedagogy – what our students will engage with, what they will be challenged by, what we can be challenged by – since this is, after all, what we do.

The ‘debate’ with Peter at the Sydney Writers’ Festival took place when I was completing work on a book I’ve been co-writing with Paul Salzman, After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007 – a sequel to our much earlier literary history, The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970–1988 (1989). For Peter, our notion of literary ‘diversity’ in Australia was simply a sign of just how indiscriminate – another incantatory word – our critical faculties must have been. For us, however, it was the consequence of properly acknowledging the full range of fiction these years produced.

The way a literary history is arranged, and the themes and issues that are privileged, give even the busiest literary field some shape and clarity. When we planned After the Celebration, we initially wanted to develop a sense that contemporary Australian novelists could travel: quite literally so, in terms of the locations they chose for themselves, the way they are published and distributed (where even independent Australian publishers routinely do deals with overseas publishing houses), the media venues that discuss them (so that even first novels are reviewed in overseas newspapers and journals), the increasing experience of being translated into other languages, the overseas prizes they are short-listed for and sometimes awarded.

Travel – the experience of moving out into the world, of engaging with others – is a common theme in contemporary Australian fiction. An example is Joan London’s first novel, Gilgamesh (2001), published locally by Pan Macmillan/Picador and then in the US by Grove, and reviewed favourably in the Guardian and the New York Times. Gilgamesh takes travel not only as a theme but as a structuring logic, with chapters entitled ‘Visitors’ (an appealing foreigner arrives, disrupting the ordinariness of local Australian life), ‘Flight’ (the female protagonist travels to London and then Armenia in pursuit of her lover) and finally, after a complex series of events, ‘Return’ – bringing Edith, the protagonist, home again. The novel establishes a dialogue between being at home and leaving home, registered at the end when Edith is told that she has ‘found [her] place by now’ while her son Jim is about to step into ‘the traveller’s world’ and depart.

If travel is a major preoccupation in contemporary Australian fiction, so is home and place, as London’s novel suggests, and our new literary history must respond to these themes. Gilgamesh is also an historical novel, beginning in the 1930s. It is a kind of paradox that contemporary Australian fiction is preoccupied with history and historical development: another major theme which finds itself reflected (via a kind of distorting sideshow mirror) in the bitter ‘history wars’ of a few years ago. Gilgamesh begins with an act of settlement – late colonial settlement – as Edith’s parents establish a farm in ‘the wilds of south-western Australia’. Contemporary Australian fiction returns almost compulsively to the colonial scene, to all the fortunes and misfortunes of settlement in the early days of the frontier. This is another kind of travelling, another kind of return: just as important to contemporary Australian fiction as the journey to another country and another place.

Peter ends his talk by advising us to look in our new book at J.M. Coetzee, the acclaimed novelist who moved from South Africa to Adelaide in 2002, the year before he won the Nobel Prize. But we do, several times over. For Peter, I should especially be looking at Coetzee because I also once emigrated to Australia. (I came here from England with my working-class parents when I was eight, on a government-assisted migrant passage: very different origins and circumstances indeed.)

Coetzee became an Australian citizen in 2006, acknowledging the ‘city that I now have the honour to call my home’. In the process, he effectively reinvented himself as an Australian novelist. Not long before, Coetzee had also invented an Australian novelist, the elderly heroine of his novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003). ‘By birth’, the novel says, ‘she is Australian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951 to 1963 abroad, in England and France’. But how Elizabeth’s Australian-ness is defined remains unclear. The protagonist of her best-known novel, we are told, is the wife of Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses: tying her fiction to exactly the kind of European high modernism Peter so reveres. Africa figures largely in her travels, and the small-scale ‘critical industry’ that develops around her is based in New Mexico. She advocates a sort of cultural nationalism, telling an African writer that Australian writers have grown ‘out of the habit of writing for strangers’ because Australia can now ‘afford to support a home-grown literature’. On the other hand, she speaks of ‘resisting’ established local literary traditions. There is, she says, ‘a weight of Australias made up by many other people, that you have to push against’; and when someone asks her if, in her novels, she is ‘making up Australia’ she answers yes.

How contemporary novelists go about ‘making up Australia’ is one question that preoccupies our book. Every Australian novelist defines himself or herself in relation to Australia and Australian literary traditions and events: as Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (1998) self-consciously does when (echoing Patrick White) it rejects earlier ‘dry’ forms of local bush realism, for example, or as Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake (2003) does when it returns to the infamous Ern Malley hoax of 1944. There is indeed a confident sense of writing in the framework of ‘a home-grown literature’ among contemporary Australian novelists. But there is also a sense – simultaneously registered in Coetzee’s novel – that departure and travel and a dialogue with other places is as important. For many contemporary novelists, the cultural critic Meaghan Morris’s observation in her essay ‘Afterthoughts on “Australianism”’ (1992) remains true: ‘I have always learned most about Australia by writing from here to an elsewhere and from somewhere else to here’.

Elizabeth Costello is a novel which wonders about how a writer can inhabit otherness, how one gets into the mind of someone or something radically different: how a male writer, like Coetzee, inhabits a female protagonist like Elizabeth, for example, or perhaps how a South African novelist ‘makes up’ an Australian novelist. These issues are pondered by Elizabeth herself as she speaks and debates at public forums, wondering how she might come to understand the minds of animals, of murderers, and so on and never arriving at any clear conclusion.

Coetzee’s novel is built around Elizabeth’s performances at a series of public forums around the world, constantly taking her out of Australia and away from her role as a novelist. Or rather, his novel enables her to perform at public forums precisely because she is a novelist. As she travels, however, she is beset by doubts about what she says. ‘If she had any sense’, the novel suggests at one point, ‘she would keep out of the limelight’. But she continues to speak at forums, festivals and conferences, and continues to worry about how she performs: as if public performance defines her just as much as her fiction does.

In The New Diversity, we had noted the increased visibility of Australian novelists in the public domain, with state and regional literary festivals establishing themselves and inviting writers along to speak not just about their own work, but about all manner of things. Those festivals are now larger, and more heavily populated and publicised, than ever. The Sydney Writers’ Festival itself began in 1997 and attracts over 250 writers from Australia and overseas. Such events put Australian writers alongside overseas guests, and novelists alongside poets and academics and non-fiction writers of various persuasions. They invest literary culture with commercial opportunities (with book launches, authors’ signings etc.). And they also offer the opportunity – one among many others – of turning the novelist (just like Elizabeth Costello) into a public intellectual.

There have been many attempts over recent years to identify and quantify Australia’s public intellectuals – but very few of those identified, it must be said, are novelists. Public intellectuals need to be able to tie their knowledges to issues of public, and often political, concern: this is what people like Tim Flannery or David Marr or Robert Manne do. But few novelists do this. In fact, novelists can themselves be rather inward looking in the way they practise their craft, wanting – understandably enough – to be pretty much left alone. Writers like Murray Bail or David Malouf or the late Elizabeth Jolley have had nothing public to say about Australian politics: this is not entirely unusual amongst Australian novelists, and there is certainly no novelist in Australia who has the global political profile of someone like, say, Arundhati Roy.

On the other hand, many Australian novelists have roles to play elsewhere in the media and have intervened in public, political issues, some of which defined our recent period. We can think of Thomas Keneally, Rosie Scott and the work of the Sydney PEN Writers in Detention Committee; and incidentally, Keneally’s neglected novel, The Tyrant’s Novel (2003), is precisely an account of the political and public responsibilities of the contemporary novelist who is finally incarcerated in a detention centre in Australia. We see detention centres in other Australian novels, too: like Robert Drewe’s Grace. We also see them in Eva Sallis’ fiction, like The Marsh Birds (2005).

Eva Sallis has been another Australian novelist who has intervened in political, public issues, and is the co-founder of an educational group called Australians Against Racism. She notes in a recent essay, ‘Arguably, much literature in Australia through the 1980s and 1990s was very inward looking’; but she adds that around the beginning of the new millennium, the novelist’s question ‘Who are we?’ mutated into the question, ‘What are we becoming?’

The question of what Australia is becoming takes some novelists back into the past: as in Gail Jones’s provocative Sorry (2007) which unfolds after the Second World War but which speaks to the apology that John Howard couldn’t give. Or it can take us into an imaginary future, which is what a couple of future shock novels did in 2006: Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist and Andrew McGahan’s Underground. Underground was even a prophetic novel: where the narrator, the brother of a future prime minister, finds himself incarcerated in nothing less than Parliament House itself (now abandoned), passing his time by flicking through old Hansard files and wondering how it is that even prime ministers can ‘disappear from the records with brutal suddenness, without farewells or ceremony’: which of course is precisely what happened at the end of 2007.

Novels that are directly critical of contemporary Australian realities, like Perlman’s Three Dollars, are a minority, but they can generate moments of intense debate: especially among the Right, and in this case, various journalists in the Australian newspaper, all of whom had felt that literature should be politics-free.

Peter also seems uneasy about the political imperatives of literature. Most Old Tories are, usually believing that the literary experience should somehow be a ‘pure’ one. The literacy debates in Australia under Howard ran a similar line: that the teaching of literature should be ideology-free, as if it ever could be. One of Peter’s favourite novelists, Gerald Murnane – also a favourite of the ultra-Right political columnist for the Australian and chair of the Literature Board, Imre Salusinszky – provides a good example of this sort of literary hygiene, a self-styled ‘technician’ who seems to aspire towards a condition of ‘pure’ story.

But the question of how political Australian novelists should or could be remains open. For me, an exemplary one in this respect is Frank Moorhouse, best known in the 1990s for his ambitious, meticulous League of Nations novels, Grand Days (1993) and Dark Palace (2000). In my view, Moorhouse is an Australian public intellectual: sort of. His novels are political but they are also written under the influence of Henry James – which may explain why Peter thinks Moorhouse takes too long to unfold his scenes. Through their character Edith Campbell Berry, they blend the inward-lookingness of private lives with public, political responsibilities. Politically speaking, Moorhouse is what I have called a ‘Tory libertarian’, a little different to Peter’s Old Toryism: conservative in some respects, but much less so in others. His work is often simply about ‘the art of living’, as it was for Henry James. He’s an epicurean who likes martinis and good restaurants (and he isn’t alone in this amongst Australian writers). But his politics are complicated and this sometimes makes it difficult for him to ‘speak out’. In one of his essays, he noted: ‘Writers sometimes become haughty about having to do publicity and claim this is evidence of the commercialisation of the literary arts. It has to be remembered that writing as a vocation is solitary work. The writer works alone for years on a book and the skills involved are not necessarily related in any way to those of a public performer.’

But Moorhouse does ‘do publicity’ from time to time, publishing some politically provocative work: in particular, his essay in the Griffith Review of November 2006, ‘The Writer in a Time of Terror’, which investigated acts of political censorship in Australia under the Howard government. This is one part of Moorhouse’s libertarianism which puts him at odds with the Right in Australia; this essay went on to win a Walkley Award for Social Equity Journalism, as well as the 2007 PEN Keneally Award and the Alfred Deakin Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. These kinds of awards are unusual for Australian novelists.

Our book, After the Celebration, is in part structured around the things I’ve been outlining here: the movement back and forth between ‘inward-lookingness’ and an involvement with the world beyond us, the themes of home and travel, perhaps; and a sense of the novelist’s unstable and uneven position in the public sphere and in public, political debate: sometimes visible, often not. As these things played themselves out, a huge amount of fiction got published between 1989 and 2007 and our book tries to do all this material some justice. For Peter, this means we will once again be ‘indiscriminate’. But to write literary history properly means honouring the full range of the field: covering both the vertical and the horizontal when we examine what went on over the past couple of decades.

We’ve found genre useful as one way of organising such a large study. The novel is itself a genre, of course, one of three primary genres alongside poetry and drama. A writer makes a generic choice to write a novel (and not poetry or drama). But there are many more choices to make, depending on a range of factors: setting, characters, plot, levels of seriousness or play, and so on. Genre refers to a distinctive type of – in our case – literary text. Once there were a relatively small number of classical genres, each unfolding in particular ways, such as tragedy, comedy, pastoral, satire, romance, histories, biography. But in contemporary societies there are a myriad of genres, and subgenres. Genres are ways of organising narrative, providing it with codes of conduct, as it were: making narrative behave in one way and not another. A narrative might do this by distinguishing what it does from what other narratives do, as Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus begins by distinguishing its own project from the ‘dryness’ of Australian bush realism, for example. Some novels are relatively easily to recognise in terms of genre. But others – less content with following codes of conduct – can try to ‘transcend’ genre, or be multi-generic.

Eucalyptus again gives us an example. This novel, as Peter grudgingly admits, is a pastoral. The pastoral is a classical genre defined by its idealised countryside setting, where romances unfold between shepherds and shepherdesses. In Bail’s novel, the setting is indeed rural and idealised, and a romance unfolds between a stranger who arrives on what was in fact a pastoral(ist’s) property and a beautiful young woman who knows nothing other than life in the country. But the novel’s narrative is also built around the planting of varieties of eucalyptus plants on an otherwise denuded property. And it gives a history of that property, tracing it back to colonial settlers and providing the young woman with a family history. These features allow us to identify a more specific genre that we call, in our book, the eco-genealogical novel.

Is this, as Peter thinks, an incoherent, far-fetched category? Other contemporary Australian novels – Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide (1994) or David Foster’s The Glade Within the Grove (1996) – in fact share similar features: an investment in the ecology of the landscape, and an interest in unfolding family histories. The combination of these two things – ecology and genealogy – says something very coherent indeed about the imperatives of the contemporary Australian novel at this time.

Genre is one of several aspects of literature that Peter doesn’t seem to grasp. He objects to it as a way of understanding literature, even though he invokes generic categories (the pastoral, magic realism etc.) when it is impossible to do otherwise. For Old Tory critics, there ought to be no genres, of course, just great literature and ‘trash’. But this simple view merely flattens out a literary field that is defined over and over again by generic identities and generic differences, sometimes obvious, sometimes not. For better or worse, Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus is indeed a pastoral novel, giving us quite a different account of rural settlement to the one we find in, say, Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth (2004) – which is not a pastoral.

There is nothing indiscriminate about all this, however, because genres arise in response to particular predicaments, particular needs, particular cultural logics, particular choices. These are the kinds of things a good literary history accounts for.

Ken Gelder is Professor of English at the University of Melbourne. His book with Paul Salzman, After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989-2007, will be published in March 2009.
© Ken Gelder
Overland 192
– spring 2008, pp. 71-76

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