It begins with the admission that my entire life is a facade. I teach but am not a teacher, write but am not a writer, edit but am not an editor, take photographs but am not a photographer. On occasion I have attempted to make art or play music, yet I am the mere simulacrum of an artist, the bare chalk outline of a musician. Moreover, I hold no claim to scholarly influence, nor do I pretend to boast any kind of public reputation. The ultimate confirmation of this – if you enter my name into Wikipedia, it responds: Did you mean: dead bison?
At first blush, this history of self-deceit and insignificance disqualifies me from passing judgement on contemporary Australian writing. Developing catalogues of superior texts has traditionally been about the exercise of power: the anointed few endorse a select range of monuments, excluding countless others, both known and unknown. It is assumed that to evaluate any field first requires unerring self-assurance as to one’s own authority within it. Indulging in such ‘debaucheries of judiciousness’ – Northrop Frye’s quaint term for critical value judgements – surely requires unquestioned cultural competence, not the kind of gauche sensibility and frailty of character routinely ascribed to those at the outskirts of the literary scene.
Yet here I would offer a counterargument: only by starting from a position of utter irrelevance can one hope to be liberated from the unseemly struggles for dominance that have enveloped cultural inventory-taking, both in Australia and elsewhere. I do not see myself as so different from those learned anthologisers who grope around blindly in the interminable library of cyberspace. Like me, they are overwhelmed by choice; like them, I try to deal with the finitude of time by creating clumsy canons to systematise my reading. Perhaps being several steps removed from a literary realm that the unwittingly serpentine Les Murray termed ‘a nest of vipers’ actually puts one in prime position to assess it.
My obsession with orders of excellence dates back to Spin magazine’s terrifically whimsical ‘Twenty-five Greatest Albums of All Time’ edition of 1989: James Brown’s Sex Machine at number one, Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime at twenty-five, and not a Beatle in sight. Though since then tracking an increasingly conventional contemporary music canon has led mostly to despondency, I have found myself unable to stop doing so.
Later I became fascinated with those high priests of literature who take critical evaluation to absurdly particular lengths. What novice would not be intimidated by the audacity of the first sentence of FR Leavis’s The Great Tradition: the ‘great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad’? Austen, Eliot, James and Conrad as the great English novelists, and Dickens, Hardy and Woolf be damned? How could a neophyte quarrel with Harold Bloom’s divine team selection of Shakespeare as playmaker, a Dante-Chaucer-Cervantes front three, Henrik Ibsen and Pablo Neruda on the substitutes’ bench, and Thea Astley and Randolph Stow watching from the stands?
Still, there are other ways into that game. One is suggested by Edward Said’s notion of the critical nomad, a wanderer who remains ‘essentially between homes’. This is the critic who perpetually seeks expertise but never expects to attain it. My own doomed quest for truth, undertaken in Said’s shadow, becomes less a search for works of genius to be deified than a starting point from which to branch out.
When it comes to writing, I am dedicated, if not to say limited, to the essay form. To paraphrase Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza, my journalism is mushy, my poems oily, my attempts at short stories a disgrace to this house. In striving for some vestige of relevance, the ensuing list is therefore a paean to the type.
Doubtless readers will about now be asking how someone who does not know their arse from their elbow literary-wise gets to decide exactly what that type is. The best I can come up with is to try, Kurt Schwitters-like, to paste together a few found fragments in the hope of stumbling across some kind of aesthetic coherency.
The Oxford English Dictionary calls the essay ‘a short piece of writing on a particular subject’. (Not a bad start, if a bit vague.) It goes on to note that its origins are ‘to weigh up’ or ‘to try’. (A little better.) Leslie Jamison, introducing a collection of the things, writes that the essay ‘investigates its own seams’. (Wish I had said that.) Brian Dillon, in his recent book Essayism, asserts that the essay is ‘diverse and several – it teems’. (Now we are really getting somewhere.) Rebecca Solnit, one of the hottest properties in essay writing today, reckons that the format is presently ‘in a golden age’. (Without explaining exactly what that format is.)
Then there is LC Rodd, who, in his 1968 work The Australian Essay, helpfully declares that ‘the true essay has the air of having grown like a flower, rather than of having been put out with the cat and the milk bottles in the course of ordinary living’. To this I add possibly the worst definition ever – from a New York Times article titled ‘How to Write a Good College Application Essay’ – which advises prospective writers that ‘the essay is your megaphone’, alongside one of the more helpful, attributed by Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan to his old English teacher, who told him that ‘the point of an essay is to amuse, educate and express something personal’. And, for Robert Dessaix, the essay drifts from ‘the lament or playful doodle towards setting fire to the furniture’.
To summarise: the contemporary essay is most often nonfictional, most commonly shortish, quite possibly personal, quite likely expository, rather probably argumentative, and with luck aesthetically pleasing; it is rarely confused with the short story, even less regularly mistaken for poetry, and arguably distinct from blogs and podcasts, though do not ask me how. So are you closer to understanding exactly what an essay is yet? No, me either.
In early 2018, Black Inc., for two decades the publisher of the annual Best Australian Essays compilation, announced that it was revamping – that is, discontinuing – the series. What follows is an arbitrary yet sincere attempt to fill the void left by the series’ demise: a quasi-canon celebrating recent short nonfiction in all of its weird, manifold glory.
‘The Limit of the World’ by Kerryn Goldsworthy (The Saturday Paper, 2017)
Always begin with a failure.
Writing ought to combine perpetual self-doubt with a bare smattering of hubris, misplaced or otherwise. To write, you should be just arrogant enough to believe yourself capable – in your better moments – of outdoing almost anybody. At the same time, you must always be ready to acknowledge writerly skill beyond your own purview.
When I was first confronted with this Horne Prize-winning essay, my instinct was to wish a pox upon the author and her kin, pets included. That was because I had entered for the same competition, with a creation I was convinced deserved to win. Such pretension is acceptable so long as one knows when to jettison it and face reality. And the reality is that I would give up ragù alla Bolognese and Baudelaire to be able to construct something this compelling. ‘The Limit of the World’ interweaves many of the attributes that one imagines a great essay might contain: clarity, subtlety, modesty, and personal observations that transfer to broader insights. Conceivably one might in time reach this level, but for now Goldsworthy has totally fucking outclassed the likes of me.
You admit it; you get on with it.
‘Eulogy for Nigger’ by David Bradley (TriQuarterly, 2014)
Some might query why an essay by an American author who won the UK’s prestigious Notting Hill Prize is included here. However, that would be to make certain assumptions as to what constitutes an Australian essay. This was not written by an Australian. It is not explicitly about Australia. Yet it sure as heck requires being read in Australia.
‘Eulogy for Nigger’ is by turns elegiac, astute, hilarious and tragic. Bradley’s themes are universal: for instance, what he sees as ‘Nigger’s vital signs’ – higher unemployment, lower incomes, more frequent arrests, rampant discrimination and patronising whiteys – readily translate to Australia and its First Nations. Bradley has said that part of his motivation was to question why ‘we make war on symbols rather than dealing with underlying issues’. By the end, in fear of being lynched, ‘Nigger’ leaps from a balcony, only to escape unscathed because he ‘lands on an immigrant’. Bradley lays bare those deep-seated social issues in the best way possible – by making formidable art.
The power of this weakens me even as it sustains me. It is so extraordinary that it entirely obliterated my writerly self-confidence. Or it would have done if I had any self-confidence.
‘One Plot, at Most’ by Jane Rawson (Overland, 2018)
There is no such thing as a writer. There are only readers who write. Great readers are more essential than great authors, mainly because the latter group is subsumed by the former. Some of the foremost essays and stories give a sense of having been written by an ardent reader who got unexpectedly sidetracked into writing.
Rawson’s audacious essay on the Australian short story namechecks Barbara Baynton, Truman Capote, Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme, among others. It feels a bit like a short story that turned into an essay by accident, which is apt as the distinction between the two is fuzzier than we tend to allow. Rawson mostly casts herself as victim of her own dry wit – ‘In December 2017, a short story from the New Yorker went viral. I was off Twitter at the time, sulking about not getting on any best-books-of-the-year lists, so I missed it’ – and remains refreshingly aware that her work is but another speck of dust in an ever-expanding multiverse of published writing.
‘One plot, at most’ is something that only a great reader could write.
‘Against Progress: Dreams, Nightmares and the Meaning of Abbott’ by Joshua Mostafa (Southerly, 2014)
I am taken with the notion of this list having a ripple effect: if, as a consequence of my championing these texts, at least one person seeks them out, then good writing will be more widely read. Of course, such a hope first depends on somebody reading this.
Nonetheless, choosing to read something is one thing, being able to read it quite another. Few of the essays discussed here are freely available; most reside in publications that are, by financial necessity, hidden behind paywalls. Other than by purchasing a subscription to every single one, only those in universities will likely have access to them all.
‘Against Progress’ is a quasi-academic essay that too many people will never be able to access, let alone read. Mostafa’s is a voice of reason: on grave matters like capitalist-induced environmental ruin he makes statements that are both compellingly simple – ‘the plundering of the earth on which our current way of life depends cannot go on indefinitely’ – and simply compelling – ‘burning the petrified remains of the last mass extinction will hasten the onset of the next.’
When government financing of arts and culture is but a skerrick of that spent on defence, intelligent writing of this calibre is worth more than any number of tanks or submarines.
‘The Little Murders Sunset?’ by Kareena Dhaliwal (Voiceworks, 2017)
The best part of becoming a self-appointed appraiser of literature is the enforced expansion of one’s reading horizons. Without wanting to imitate those critics who infer having studied every single contender in their quest to isolate greatness, I undertook to at least try.
One happy consequence of these explorations was discovering Voiceworks, a periodical featuring ‘exciting new writing and art by young Australians [under twenty-five]’. I had not previously paid heed to the publication because (a) as I couldn’t write shit until well beyond the age of twenty-five, I naturally assumed that condition to be ubiquitous, and (b) I am way too old to publish anything there. It turns out that a sadder case of reader-as-moron is barely imaginable, as even a fleeting survey of the nonfiction category in Voiceworks unveils much first-rate stuff.
Dhaliwal is a mere twenty-one years old and already has a cooler two-sentence biography than I could ever come up with. Her essay reflects on working in the theatre, as well as race, gender and other crucial issues, all considered with a combination of youthful exuberance and an absurdly well-developed prose style that makes one sick with envy.
‘Only Women Bleed’ by Rebecca Harkins-Cross (The Lifted Brow, 2017)
I should at this juncture admit to a clear bias in my selections so far. As prominent neo-conservative economist Edward Nell once stated, ‘adventure, imagination and boldness in the taking of risks … are the central elements in the make-up of the entrepreneur, true creator of the world in which we live today.’ Reactionaries across Australia certainly have taken this creed to heart, with scarcely anyone to the right of John Hewson prepared to eschew capitalism for aesthetics to the point of creating any short nonfiction worth reading.
Doubtless I exaggerate. There must be a few half-decent conservative writers out there somewhere, right? But for now, I would rather concern myself with reflective radicals like Harkins-Cross, whose ‘Only Women Bleed’ is an explosion of bodily paroxysms that features more intricate wordplay and acute perception than a year-long subscription to Quadrant could furnish.
‘This Connected Life’ by Katharine Murphy (Meanjin, 2013)
I planned on continuing this theme by way of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario: are moderate to left-leaning writers better essayists because they are moderate to left-leaning, or does the converse apply? Then I decided that anyone who prefers the insidious puddles of linguistic piss that the likes of Rowan Dean, Nick Cater, Janet Albrechtsen, Rebecca Weisser, Kevin Donnelly or Gerard Henderson squirt out is unlikely to be hanging around these pages to begin with. Overland readers already know that Mel Campbell, Jacqueline Maley, Benjamin Law, Kim Mahood, Jeff Sparrow, Bridie Jabour, Julian Burnside, Ben Brooker, etc. bear scrutiny in a way that the right’s almost universally dishwater prose stylists do not.
A political commentator who theoretically straddles the line between progressive and conservative, Murphy specialises in the kind of high-pressure journalism that I find impossibly daunting. This composition proves Murphy also capable of producing high-quality nonfiction of the less-rushed variety, though it probably took her half the time that I spent over this sputtering paragraph alone.
‘Untitled’ by Hugo Wilcken (The Wire, 2009)
Short nonfiction appears in all kinds of places and comes in all sorts of categories, including sometimes in a regular format devised by a specific publication. The ‘epiphanies’ column from the 2000s heyday of The Wire magazine (subtitled ‘adventures in modern music’) was a favourite of mine in this monthly-series mode. Jace Clayton on Japanese noise, Geeta Dayal on drone, Simon Fisher Turner on field recordings, Ian McMillan on Captain Beefheart, and Mike Barnes on the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir were all mini-essays I revered for both their inventiveness and subject matter.
Wilcken’s account of how Manchester band Joy Division fired imaginings of Britain in a teenager lounging in early 80s Sydney was perhaps the best of all. This expatriate narrative – by 2009 the author was living in Europe but dreaming of Australia – is evocative of the work of Robert Hughes. And, as with Hughes, this first experience of Wilcken set me off in pursuit of the rest of his oeuvre, which I guess is another function of exceptional essays.
‘The 90s – Why You Had to Be There’ by Sally Breen (The Conversation, 2017)
To revel in the durability of the essay while simultaneously witnessing the attempted annihilation of the form, look no further than the university. Every year millions of the things are churned out at undergraduate level, and if many are babbling pieces of batshit, why blame the students when too often their teachers trivialise written expression and narrative ability, insisting instead that written work be graded chiefly on ‘content’?
Meanwhile, the scholarly publishing mill grinds on with dismal obstinacy. Yet rather than devouring the hand that sportingly tosses crumbs at my faltering career, I ought instead testify that there are countless academics out there who – against all odds – write at the highest levels under the most testing of conditions. Breen’s chic, ravishingly crafted, consistently pleasurable essay provides a perfect example of this.
‘Our Politics Is a Dreadful Black Comedy’ by Richard Flanagan (Guardian Australia, 2018)
One reads to gain knowledge, along the way making inevitable judgements on what has been read. I have one main evaluative criteria: does the text bear re-reading? In a cultural epoch characterised by transience, consumers flitting dragonfly-like from one thing to the next, to be impressed by a piece of writing enough to want to return to it seems a big thing.
Upon reading Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it immediately joined That Deadman Dance, It’s Raining in Mango, Tourmaline, Tirra Lirra by the River and a few others as Australian novels that I will return to for the rest of my life. This recent essay – originally a speech, but it works just as well on the page – pushes Flanagan even higher in my internal hierarchy of authors. Our politics have hardly become less black or comedic since – indeed, the candidate said to embody the traits of ‘simplicity as a national virtue’ and ‘language unimpeded by the necessity for thought’ has lately found himself elevated to prime minister. Yet it makes it easier to deal with all the imbecility knowing there is someone out there capable of summing it all up in a couple of thousand brutally brilliant words.
As a concession to the inadequacy of a selection process that has bypassed myriad worthy candidates, my eleventh and final choice is to make no choice. Instead, I note some further contenders. For excellence in longer-form nonfiction, Mungo MacCallum’s Quarterly Essay ‘Girt by Sea’ from 2002 would have been included had it not missed the cut-off date (even though I had no idea what the cut-off date was). Rebecca Giggs’ ‘Whale Fall’ (Granta, 2016) is as good as anything that I read, but it has already been anthologised elsewhere and young writers tend to be greedy enough for fame without my encouraging more. Carmen Lawrence’s ‘We Are Destroying the Joint’ (Destroying the Joint, 2013) is so logically argued that I questioned whether it was written by a politician. Chris Fleming’s dazzling ‘On Drugs: Part II’ (Sydney Review of Books, 2015) was omitted because I once had a drink with the author (sycophantism is rife in the Australian writing community and so I baulked at contributing to it here). Jesse Paris-Jourdan’s ‘Shit City’ and Rhea Bhagat’s ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love’ were additional cases from Voiceworks of irritatingly talented young people writing at a level of cogency most only dream of achieving.
Then there is Safdar Ahmed’s ‘Villawood’ (The Shipping News, 2015), an impressive reminder that the essay now crosses over into various graphic formats. It overlaps with memoir, too, and for those who, like me, prefer terser essays that disrupt the genre and are only incidentally about the person’s life, Hugo Race’s ‘The Crystal Blitz, 1981’ (Overland, 2014) and Liam Pieper’s ‘Mistakes Were Made’ (Kill Your Darlings, 2015) are spellbinding examples. Finally, to kid myself that I am right up with the zeitgeist, Martin McKenzie-Murray’s ‘Changing the Discourse on Suicide’ (The Saturday Paper, 2018), Tim Soutphommasane’s ‘Race and Representation’ (Griffith Review, 2018) and Anwen Crawford’s review of the Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman (Australian Book Review, 2018) enticed me long after I had sworn to stop researching and simply write this bloody thing.
To conclude, this venture into the evaluative sphere has corroborated my sense of a vigorous complexity in short-form nonfiction in this country. The rude health of the type is especially remarkable given that the essay seems often regarded as less aesthetically significant than fiction, and near inconsequential alongside actual books. (Try telling someone that you write and see if they reply, ‘Really, what essays have you published lately’?)
The broad range of styles and subjects on display demonstrates to some extent a uniquely antipodean take on the modern-day essay. At the same time, though, the evident burgeoning of the form takes it way beyond parochial boundaries, situating it more properly within a global context of potent nonfiction writing in the twenty-first century. Hopefully even most real authors will agree with me on that score.
And that, pace Henry James, is the last word on the essay … until another word be written.
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