Issue #46, Fall 2012
Surveying the Australian Literary Landscape
Surveying the Australian Literary Landscape
Creative nonfiction is one of the fastest-growing literary genres in Australia, amongst both readers and writers. Australian memoirs, essay collections, literary investigative journalism, food, travel and true crime books occupy increasing shelf space in our bookshops and appear on our bestseller lists (and, occasionally, on international ones, too). Many Australian magazines—notably Griffith Review and The Monthly—regularly feature excellent creative nonfiction pieces. From a bird’s-eye view, Australian creative nonfiction looks like a colorful crowd, resisting easy classification thematically or stylistically. What follows here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some of our most respected and widely read writers, who have made their marks on the literary scene and whose works have influenced and, at times, spurred public debate. I have divided the list according to what I see as three generations in the development of Australian creative nonfiction. Those I call “pioneers” began publishing their works at the time when “creative nonfiction” was still a foreign term even in the U.S. and Europe, let alone in Australia. Their works arguably inspired the next generation of writers: the “veterans,” whose books first appeared in the ’90s, when “New Journalism” was already a well-known expression, and during the memoir boom. The so-called “newcomers” have begun publishing in the last decade but have already left their footprints on the Australian, and sometimes the international, literary and public consciousness.
Clive James, one of Australia’s most internationally successful writers, is a poet, novelist, broadcaster, essayist, critic, and memoirist. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “an eclectic master of the high/low” and by The New York Times as “a comic public intellectual,” James is known for a writing style that is a fine mix of humor, gossip, and wide-ranging intellect, spiced up with aphorisms and surprising detail. James’ first memoir, Unreliable Memoirs (1980), an account of his childhood in post-war Sydney written with a novelistic flair, is an Australian classic. Since its first appearance, Unreliable Memoirs has been reprinted over 100 times in Australia and abroad, and was excerpted in The New Oxford Book of English Prose, 1999. James’ subsequent memoirs, about his adult life, feature stories about such Australian luminaries as Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Brett Whiteley. James has also published many essay collections. One of the most interesting of these is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007), in which James discusses, in his usual sparkling prose, the impact of 20th-century thinkers, artists, and leaders—of his (eclectic and, at times, whimsical) choice—on the world and on him. James has received many awards for his work and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1992 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012.
Robyn Davidson, whom some consider the “patroness” of Australian travel writing, was one of only two women to win the prestigious Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She is also a great adventuress, a camel trainer, Doris Lessing’s former roommate, Salman Rushdie’s former lover, and a champion of Aboriginal rights and environmental issues. Along with Clive James, Davidson was associated with “the Push,” a libertarian, left-wing group of intellectuals that operated in Sydney between the 1940s and 1970s. Throughout her writing career, Davidson has explored nomadism across various cultures. In her seminal Tracks (1980), which describes her nine-month-long solo desert trek with four camels and a dog, Davidson argues that nomadism is also an emotional phenomenon. (“The self in a desert becomes more like the desert,” she famously wrote.) Tracks, a poetic love story between a woman and a landscape, has become a cult-classic in Australia and abroad, winning several international awards. In the early 1990s, Davidson journeyed along with Rabari, Indian nomads, and described that experience in Desert Places (1996). That sojourn, and Davidson’s time spent with Aboriginal communities in the Indian Himalayas and with nomads in Tibet, were the subject of her influential long essay in Quarterly Essay (2006). There, Davidson argued that nomadic cultures have valuable lessons to offer us, particularly in the face of the current environmental crisis. Davidson has won acclaim not only for her adventures and activism, but also for her writing style. She moves effortlessly between the personal and political, the argumentative and lyrical. Her prose is rich, meditative, a little slangy, and playfully self-deprecating. She has also made her impact on Australian creative nonfiction as the editor of The Picador Book of Journeys (2002) and The Best Australian Essays (2009).
Thomas Keneally is the author of many fiction and nonfiction books, including the Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler's Ark (1982), which treads the fine line between fiction and nonfiction and is frequently likened to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Keneally is an Australian Living Treasure and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1983. He is also featured as one of six Literary Australian Legends in a series of postage stamps. Keneally began publishing nonfiction books in the mid-’70s, co-authoring one of the earlier ones, Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime (1987), with Robyn Davidson and Patsy Adam-Smith. As is the case with many of his novels, Keneally’s nonfiction is usually bound with history and politics. His subjects range from the Australian Republican Movement (Keneally is its founding chairman) to Aboriginal history to the American Civil War to the history of world famines. One of his most notable historical nonfiction books, The Great Shame (1998), a study of Irish convicts sent to Australia during the 19th century, includes the stories of his and his wife’s ancestors. Keneally has also written several travel books; among them are the gorgeously illustrated Now and in Time to Be (1991), in which Keneally returns to the home of his ancestors, and The Place Where Souls Are Born (1992), which charts Keneally’s journey to the American Southwest in search of the vanished Indian tribes. Keneally is also the author of several memoirs. The most recent, Searching for Schindler (2007), tells the story behind the writing of Keneally’s most famous work and its subsequent adaptation into the film Schindler’s List. The book focuses on Keneally’s travels to Germany, Israel, Austria, America and Poland, where he interviewed the survivors rescued by Schindler, and on his later adventures in Hollywood. Keneally’s style is clear, but playful, and embroidered with vivid details.
Helen Garner, one of our living classical authors, is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. She is—dare I say—the Australian Joan Didion. Garner specialises in investigative journalism, which she writes with a novelist’s attention to language, character, and setting, and with a memoirist’s candid and urgent authorial presence. In 1993, Garner won the Walkley Award for her investigation of a child’s murder for Time magazine. Her best-selling, multi-awarded books have made a significant impact on the Australian literary community and general public. Garner’s first creative nonfiction book, The First Stone (1995), generated much controversy and public debate about gender relations and sexuality in the era of sexual harassment law. In it, Garner investigated a sexual scandal at a well-known college in Melbourne, siding with the alleged perpetrator, the college Master. Undeterred by the ensuing, sometimes vitriolic, criticism (particularly from some “professional” feminists), in her later book, Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004), Garner plunged once again into the murky territory of gender warfare, following the trial of two young women, law students, accused of murdering the boyfriend of one of them, and questioning the lenient sentences they received. This book, too, provoked much discussion, particularly about contemporary justice processes. In 2006 Garner was the recipient of Australia’s most financially lucrative literary award, the Melbourne Prize for Literature.
Raimond Gaita is an award-winning philosopher, memoirist, and essayist. Gaita made the Australian rural landscape internationally famous in his seminal memoir Romulus, My Father (1998), which, according to Helen Garner, “changed the quality of the literary air in this country.” The book tells the story of Gaita’s experiences growing up during the 1950s as a migrant child of a Romanian father and a German mother, in the harsh but beautiful Victorian countryside and in the shadow of poverty and mental illness. The memoir’s uniqueness lies in Gaita’s use of language as well as in his incorporation of his philosophy into the story. Lyrically, but also analytically, he examines the ethics underpinning his father’s complex behavior, which later influenced his own philosophical work. Romulus, My Father became a bestseller in Australia and abroad, and has been a required text in many schools. The New Statesman (London) nominated the book as one of the best books of 1999, and The Australian Financial Review named it one of the 10 best books of the decade. It was later made into an award-winning film of the same title. The memoir was followed by a collection of personal essays, After Romulus (2011), in which Gaita reflects on the writing of Romulus, My Father and expands on the philosophical lessons from his childhood. Gaita, a prominent public intellectual, is also known for philosophy books and for his essays that explore questions of collective responsibility, reconciliation, multiculturalism, and the role of universities in public life, amongst many other issues. One notable example of Gaita’s essayistic prose is “Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics” in Quarterly Essay (2004), in which he attempts to reclaim the role of truth-telling in modern politics.
In his internationally best-selling and award-winning memoir The Shark Net (2000), Robert Drewe, a fiction writer, journalist, and memoirist, did for the Western Australian landscape what Gaita did for Central Victoria. Drewe mythologizes Australia as a country abundant with beauty but also with natural perils—sharks, snakes and poisonous fish, as well as human perils—by telling the story of one of the most deadly Australian serial killers, the second to last person to be executed in this country. The memoir is structured like a mystery, with the story of Drewe’s childhood unfolding parallel to, and in the creepy vicinity of, that of the murderer. The writing is rich in detail about the natural world and has a shamanic, chantlike rhythm. The Shark Net was highly praised by Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement deemed it “an instant classic” (which, indeed, it has become). The book was later adapted into an international television mini-series and a BBC radio drama. A winner of two Walkley Awards for Journalism (in 1976 and 1981), Drewe is also known for his personal columns and literary criticism. He edited The Best Australian Essays in 2010. Montebello, Drewe’s memoir of his adult years and the sequel to The Shark Net, will be published later this year.
Anna Funder’s debut as a writer was the highly successful Stasiland (2003), an ambitious work of investigative journalism that examines the legacy of the Stasi, the secret police of the former communist regime in East Germany, through the stories of Stasi officers and their victims. The book is written in the tradition of In Cold Blood: scrupulously researched, but with a gripping plot that reads like a novel. Funder’s writing style is noir-ish, wry and self-deprecating, informative and evocative. Australian critic Susan Lever argued that Stasiland, alongside Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolations, “marks a new level of achievement in the genre of ‘literary nonfiction’ in Australia” for its combination of rigorous examination of big issues with skillful storytelling. Stasiland has been translated into 16 languages and published in 20 countries. It was shortlisted for many national and international awards, and won the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize. The book is on school and university lists in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Funder’s essays have appeared in The Best Australian Essays and The Guardian, among many other publications. In 2011, she was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of “Sydney’s Top 100 Most Influential People.”
Kate Holden is a memoirist, essayist, and columnist. Her memoir In My Skin (2006), which recounts her experiences working as a prostitute and overcoming heroin addiction, is an international bestseller and was shortlisted for various awards and included in the Books Alive Great Read 2006 campaign in Australia. Following the success of her first book, Holden became a popular columnist for The Age, and her book reviews and essays have appeared in many Australian magazines. Holden’s second memoir, The Romantic (2010), is about her sexual adventures in Italy in the aftermath of her recovery. Both books are abundant with graphical sexual scenes, but the writer’s voice differs notably between the two. In My Skin is written in a feisty, fast-paced, first-person style, whereas The Romantic is more lyrical and digressive, with some sections reading like poetic travel writing. Holden’s success brought some acceptance for the female sex memoir, until then a genre not very well developed in Australia; in recent years, several other local writers have followed in her footsteps.
Alice Pung is another writer whose recent commercial and critical success has brought a memoir sub-genre—in this case, the Asian-Australian memoir—into the spotlight. A daughter of Chinese-Cambodian migrants, Pung has written two memoirs, Unpolished Gem (2006) and Her Father's Daughter(2011). Both tell of Pung’s struggle to reconcile her Asian and Australian identities, and of her family’s history before and after their arrival in Australia. Unpolished Gem, which recounts the story of Pung’s childhood and adolescence, was particularly successful. This memoir won the Australian Newcomer of the Year award in the Australian Book Industry Awards for 2007 and was shortlisted for several other awards. It has been published in the U.K. and the U.S., and translated into several languages. Interestingly, like Holden, Pung, too, chose to write her second memoir in the third person. In Her Father’s Daughter, she also incorporates passages written from her father’s point of view. Pung regularly promotes Asian-Australian writing as a popular speaker and as the editor of the anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008). Pung’s writing style is evocative, accessible and often, even when she recounts painful events, very funny.
Chloe Hooper, who won acclaim for her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, turned to investigative journalism for her second book, Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008). The book is an account of Hooper’s enquiry into the death in custody of an Aboriginal man and the trials that ensued. The Tall Man also examines the turbulent history of the Aboriginal community of Palm Island in North Queensland, where the story unfolds—a place dubbed by the media as the “Island of Sorrow” and described in The Guinness World Records as the most dangerous place on Earth outside a combat zone. Hooper’s writing is sensual and rich in history and myth. Her tone is reminiscent, at times, of magical realism and, at others, of hard-boiled crime fiction, but also contains much thoughtful essayistic prose. Through the power of her intelligence and storytelling, Hooper manages to turn a gritty modern tale into a magical, albeit deeply sad, fairy tale about the misuse of power and the power of violence. “What if … fighting a war against savagery, you become savage yourself?” she asks in the stunning first pages of the book, and as the narrative progresses and this question becomes even more urgent, Hooper never supplies easy answers. A great success in Australia and abroad, The Tall Man attracted many awards and award nominations in Australia and received rave reviews from Phillip Roth and the critics of The New Yorker and The Guardian, among many others. Robert Drewe deemed The Tall Man “the country’s finest work of literature so far this century.” Hooper is also an essayist and won a Walkley Award in 2006 for the essay that was the precursor of The Tall Man. Her essays have appeared in publications such as The Observer and The Monthly.
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A roundtable discussion
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