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The Constructive Critic (Panel discussion)

November 14, 2019

For some reason that I can’t quite explain – a sudden rush to the head methinks – I agreed to be part of a panel being organised by the ACT Writers Centre for this year’s Design Canberra Festival. The panel, called The Constructive Critic, was described as

a unique panel discussion about art criticism across multiple disciplines including visual arts, design, theatre and literature, and its importance and impact.

What is the point of arts criticism? What has changed now everyone has a voice via social media? What is the relationship between artist and critic, and what about the blurred lines of artists who critique others?

The panelists (check bios on the event website) were art curator and critic Peter Haynes (also the moderator), local authors Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, and me. This is not one of my verbatim reports because I was too busy taking part, but I want to document some of the things I remember that we discussed.

It was an enjoyable evening – for me, anyhow – largely because both the panel and the audience were friendly and engaged. We didn’t always completely agree on topics, but the ensuing discussion invigorated rather than diminished our thoughts and ideas.

My favourite description of arts criticism came from the most experienced critic amongst us, Peter, who said that:

For me writing criticism is about opening a dialogue and first the critique is for me to explore the work. Whatever medium. A review should start with a question. The critic opens the questions that the artist and curator have posed. (Tweeted by the ACT Writers’ Centre whom I thank for capturing this so nicely!)

I love this, the idea of opening the questions posed by the creator of the work (the book, the play, the exhibition, the film, etc), and will try to do it more.

The topics we covered included defining what criticism is, what creators want from criticism, who criticism is for, the role of social media in contemporary criticism (is everyone really a critic?), the economic impact of criticism, whether creators can critique or review each other’s work, and what we think about negative criticism.

Most of us seemed to agree that there is a review-criticism continuum. The highest level of criticism we saw as comprehensive, academic, knowledgeable about the wider culture/genre/context within the work fits, while reviewing at its most basic can be short, narrowly focused and, perhaps, more oriented to promoting the work. This is not to say, however, that high level criticism can’t/doesn’t promote a work too, but the link is, I’d say, more tenuous.

Related to how we define criticism is the question of who/what criticism is for. For some critics*, it seems to be for the consumer (the reader, for example), for some it can be for the creators (the authors), and for others seems to be more for the producers (the publishers). At least, this last is how it looks when you get to the emerging “influencer” role, upon which we touched briefly. For the authors in our panel, the second was particularly relevant. They appreciate criticism which can help them develop their own work. There is a fourth option, which is the one I ascribe to. It’s that criticism is about contributing to the wider culture. While of course what critics write will encourage or discourage people from reading the book, going to the show, whatever, the main loyalty is to the culture. This means I’m keen to see the work I’m discussing within the context of both literary and social culture, to talk about how it adds to the body of work to which it belongs and how it addresses or contributes to the society in which we live. Looking at it this way, I’m less interested in ascribing value – this is a “good” or “bad” book – than in where it fits. I’m not sure I achieve this, but that’s my goal.

We talked briefly about social media: the destructive impact of thoughtless negative comments on authors; the positive and negative economic impact social media can have; the impact and application of ratings (like those on GoodReads); the current plethora of free review copies which can result in reduced early sales; and the value of hindsight versus the immediate response that is common in social media.

Opposing opinions were offered about whether artists can critique artists. The affirmative suggested that artists know what’s involved in creating the work and can therefore bring that understanding to their review, while the negative suggested that it is hard to properly critique people you know, and that creators, knowing the techniques involved, will often focus on technical aspects rather than the work as a whole.

Negative reviews came up several times throughout the discussion, and again at the end. Peter Haynes announced early on that he didn’t write negative reviews, which, regular readers here know, would appeal to me. What he meant by this – and how I also see it – is that if he doesn’t like something, he won’t review it. However, he will, in an overall positive review, refer to aspects that might not have worked so well. Yes! However, a question came from the floor about negatively reviewing a work that is against current social values – that is blatantly sexist, racist, ableist, for example. Karen spoke for all of us when she said that such ideas should be called out. Jack, earlier in the session, had entertained us by describing how he had learnt from a one-star review. The reviewer had missed the main point of his work he felt, but nonetheless the comment had made a valid observation, one that he used in the next book in his series!

Of course, like my old school exam days, I came away thinking about all that I could have, or wished I’d, said. One issue we didn’t discuss in any detail was the critic him/herself: the degree to which critics should aim to be “impartial” (whatever that is) versus put their preferences and background on the table, and, indeed, whether, in our current environment regarding who can write what, whether there’s also a question concerning who can critique what? But, I’ll leave those for another day!

Meanwhile, thanks to Paul and the ACT Writers Centre for asking me to be on the panel, and to Peter, Karen and Jack for being such fun and so interesting to talk with.

* I’m using the term “critic” broadly in this write-up to cover the whole continuum of arts writers, and my examples are mostly from the book world (but in most cases you can substitute your art form of choice!)

The Constructive Critic
Design Canberra Festival 2019
Gorman Arts Centre, Main Hall
12 November 2019

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein

November 12, 2019
Garner and Krasnostein on stage

Krasnostein (L) and Garner (R), & Auslan interpreter

To say I was thrilled when Son Gums’ partner offered to buy tickets for us to see Helen Garner in conversation (last Saturday) would be an understatement. I have never seen Garner live before so that would be one bucket-list item ticked had I a bucket list! The fact that the conversation was to be conducted by Sarah Krasnostein (author of The trauma cleaner) was the icing on the proverbial cake.

This conversation was, in fact, the opening event of the Wheeler Centre’s inaugural Broadside Festival, promoted as “two days of an unapologetically feminist agenda”.

The Festival was opened by the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau, who referenced Barack Obama’s recent statement that “tweeting and hashtagging isn’t activism”. Festival Director Tam Zimet then started proceedings, explaining that the Festival’s purpose was “to bring conversations that are too hard or too much to Melbourne Town Hall”. She quoted Zadie Smith who was also in Melbourne for at the Festival, and who described writing as “taking the temperature of the moment”. This, of course, beautifully describes Helen Garner’s writing.

The Conversation

The conversation centred around the recent release of Garner’s Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987, so the conversation began by discussing both diary writing and the process of preparing them for publication. Krasnostein, who asked rather long but always thoughtful questions, talked about the role and function of diaries, suggesting they exist for their own sake but are also works in themselves. Garner’s diaries, she said, contain harvested and preserved details from the world, but also show Garner’s “fearless self-scrutiny”, plus “the things one can think but not say”. Garner said that she has always loved notebooks and pens, and how as a child she loved the peace and solitude she got from writing her diaries.

Several times through the conversation, Garner described her diary-writing as being partly about practising writing. She writes everyday, agreeing that you can’t wait “for ideal conditions”. For her, it’s all about “mother discipline”, by which she meant using the time given to you. She also commented on how much work you do when you are asleep, and referred to lessons from Marion Milner’s book, An experiment in leisure which taught her to sit quietly, with a sense of “nothingness”, to let ideas sort themselves out. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Garner, being her plainspoken self, said that “inspiration is bullshit”. Instead, “you do things little by little”. Writing, said Krasnostein a little later, is not the hard part. It’s getting to the desk.

Later in the conversation, we returned to diary-writing as stacking up the practice hours. Garner said she knows “how to put a sentence together”. (If you love Garner, like I do, you love her sentences.) But, said Garner, writers also need to know grammar. Without it, you can’t criticise your own work. The lack of grammar teaching is a “terrible loss”. Writers also need to read a lot to see how other writers do it. She bemoaned the fact that some books look like no editor has been near them. You see their “life-force leaking out of every joint”.

Krasnostein quoted Joan Didion’s statement that “style is character”, which somehow led to Virginia Woolf’s statement that you tell the truth about yourself first before you can do so about others. Krasnostein wondered whether being clear-eyed about yourself – one of Garner’s strengths, for me – was training for how to write in public. Garner took this to suggest that being honest about yourself gave you permission to write about others, but she didn’t think that would “stand up in court”! Garner suggested that memoirs can sometimes play fast and loose with other people!

Around here, Krasnostein asked whether revisiting earlier diaries – for any of us I think – shows that we are unreliable narrators of ourselves! Garner essentially agreed, saying that “memory is a creative act”. Reading one’s own diary “can be bracing” because it shows how over time you change stories, often showing yourself in a better light. There’s no way out of this, Garner believes, you just do the best you can. “Everything is fleeting, fleeting, fleeting”, she said. Writers write down stuff because they are terrified of forgetting. (I know the feeling!) “Writers are afraid of losing things”. This returned us to an idea that recurred through the conversation, that of writers preserving. Krasnostein quoted Philip Larkin’s statement that “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art”.

Of course, the process of making private diaries public was also discussed. Garner said she cut a lot. Her challenge was to decide what others might find interesting. She established certain criteria, such as she would not rewrite, and would only change (or add) something if it would otherwise be meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voice over, unlike a memoir”, meaning that you can’t say “I did that then, but no way would I do that now, because now I’m a nicer person”. Accepting herself as she was at the time of her writing brought her to understand that she wasn’t unique, which made her feel more “comradely” with others. “We all hurt and are hurt,” she said. Krasnostein offered the idea that “the more vulnerable you are, the more you connect” to which Garner replied that this is what she hopes!

Another point Garner made was that tone is important, that “tone is character”, to which she then gave a feminist twist by saying that women have felt they’ve had to tone themselves down. She writes short books, she said, because she feels she has only a limited amount of reader’s attention.

I loved Krasnostein’s summation of the diaries as offering a new expansive view of Garner, but retaining her familiar voice, her “forensic eye for detail”, and her “lean lyricism”. I can’t wait to read my copy.


There were several questions, but I’ll just share a couple:

  • on her daily writing practice: She rents an office, which stops her getting caught up housework! (In other words, she has “a room of her own”!) I particularly liked her point that she makes her notes about the details, say, of the court cases she attends, but, separately, she also documents her engagement with what she’s seen/heard, what she thought and felt. This material is “brightly alive … a treasure trove of information”. It doesn’t fit into the other boxes but it’s the richest when she comes to write. This is what I think is often missing from my reports of literary events. I need to do more of it.
  • on whether her views on Feminism had changed since the me-too movement: Not really seemed to be the answer. Garner, like many of us I believe, simply knows that when she discovered Feminism it changed her life: “It was like I’d been underwater and I finally put my head up and took a breath.” The me-too movement, like most movements, has been mixed, but “these things keep developing”.

Kate (booksaremyfavoaiteandbest) also wrote this up – including Garner’s comment about age freeing her to talk to random people on trams.

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein
Broadside Festival 2019
Melbourne Town Hall
9 November 2019

Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither Australian literature, 1930s (Pt. 2)?

November 11, 2019

As I wrote last week, I apologise to those of you not interested in the history of Australian literature, because yes again I am continuing my little survey of contemporary writing about Australian literature in the 1930s. This week I plan to look at some another discussion about the place of and interest in Australian literature.

So, today’s post looks at an article which asked Why is the average Australian reader, if given the choice, more likely to pick an overseas (English or American book) than an Australian one?

Australian fiction in America

In 1935, Pegasus (whoever that is) wrote an article (probably syndicated) in the Central Queensland Herald inspired by Australian readers’ apparent preference for books written overseas*, and in which s/he discusses, conversely, the growth of interest in Australian literature in America! S/he says that the Christian Science Monitor reports that “the American reading public is beginning to ‘wake up’ to the fact that worthwhile fiction is being produced in Australia”.  Tell McKinnon et al, that, eh? Pegasus, in fact, says that

Australian fiction has been noticed in America is something to be put to the credit side of the ledger, when Australian authors and critics deplore the quality of Australian fiction produced to date.

Book coverIndeed, Pegasus says that the Christian Science Monitor writer talks about the enthusiasm of the American reviewers “which is more than I can remember occurring in this country”. The book, they are particularly enthusiastic about is Henry Handel Richarson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony. Pegasus notes that “there are many in Australia who would agree with the American critic who described this novel as ‘the most important single piece of literature ever to come out of Australia,’ [but] it has never become popular in Australia, either amongst critics or readers”!

Pegasus then shares some of the other books that were being appreciated in America. Rolfe Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms and Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life are also loved here, he says, but EL Grant Watson’s Desert horizon, “has been forgotten here, if it ever received any particular attention”. Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Working bullocks was being deservedly appreciated, but, says Pegasus,

the unfortunate Coonardoo, well-written though it is, is probably better appreciated than it deserves by an American critic who can regard it as “a portrayal of the relations between the white race and the white black on a typical cattle station in north-eastern Australia.

Other books appreciated in America include G.B. Lancaster’s Pageant, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, and Frank Dalby Davison’s Red heifer (Man shy), which “has already been accepted in America, probably to a greater extent than in Australia”. Man shy and A house is built are both well known to me, and would be regarded as classics I think, but G.B. Lancaster, whom most of us haven’t read, is mentioned once again in my blog. This is the name used by Edith Lyttleton (1873-1945). Born south of Launceston, she moved with her family to New Zealand when she was six years old, and stayed there until she moved to England in 1909. She returned to Tasmania in the 1930s, but ended up moving back to England. She wrote, among other things, thirteen novels and some 250 short stories, which, says AustLit, were “mostly narratives of romance and adventure set in the remote back country of New Zealand, Australia and Canada”. It’s probably not surprising, given she lived very little of her adult life in Australia, that she’s not particularly well-known here now. However, Pageant did win the ALS Gold Medal.

What all this says to me is that when it comes to the creative arts, there is always something for commentators to be concerned about – and then talk about – which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, any publicity is good publicity, n’est-ce pas?

Any comments?

* Things seemed to have started to change by 1937, according to Angus and Robertson’s Mr W.G. Cousins.

Non-fiction November 2019, Weeks 1 to 3

November 10, 2019

Meme logoI’m a relative latecomer to Non-fiction November, but I like to take part in some way because I do like and read non-fiction. However, I don’t have the time to fully take part, so as in previous years, I plan to do a couple of concatenated posts.

The meme is jointly hosted by Julz (Julz Reads) (Week 1), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves) (Week 2), Katie (Doing Dewey) (Week 3), Leanne (ShelfAware) (Week 4) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) (Week 5).

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) (Julz ReadsYour Year in Nonfiction:

There are several questions for this week, but I’m just going to answer a couple …

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

My year starts at the end of last November. I’ve not read a lot of non-fiction, but have read a lot of really interesting non-fiction! I’m choosing three highlights:

  • The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (my review): because it’s a biography that also explores the history and ethics of science, as well as social justice and racism. It’s the whole package really.
  • Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (my review): because, again, social justice is at its core, and it forces us to rethink those maxims that we trot out, often without thinking about them too deeply.
  • You daughters of freedom, by Clare Wright (my review): because it illuminates how progressive Australia was at the time of our Federation, and the significant role played by women, nationally and internationally, in that progressive thought and action.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I wouldn’t say this is a topic I’ve been particularly attracted to this year, but I have had a long, ongoing interest in the stories and rights of Indigenous Australians, and try to keep my reading up in this area. This year, in terms of non-fiction regarding Indigenous Australians, I read Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review) and Stan Grant’s On identity (my review). I also read Neil H Atkinson’s The last wild west (my review), in which he chronicles his enlightenment of the injustices under which Indigenous Australians live.

Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) (Sarah’s Bookshelves) Book Pairing:

“This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.”

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomI love this week of the Challenge, because for as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed seeing connections between my reading. However, because I’m doing three weeks in one, I’m going to do just one pairing, and it pairs two books I’ve read this year, Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (my review) which chronicles the women’s suffrage movement in Australia with Sue Ingleton’s Making trouble: Tongue with fire (my review) which tells the story of two women’s rights advocates, Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C Moon.

Book coverBoth these books focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though Ingleton’s ends right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ingleton’s Dick and Moon weren’t actively involved in the suffrage movement, but they were passionate advocates of the rights of women and of women’s ability to live independent lives, and they, particularly Moon, met and associated with early Sydney leaders of the suffrage movement, like Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson, who feature in Wright’s book.

Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) (Doing Dewey) Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:

Either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert) … [or] put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert) or … create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Hmm, except that I wouldn’t and couldn’t call myself an expert, I could choose Indigenous Australian rights and lives, and repeat the three books I listed under Week 1’s particular topic question. I will stay with this idea, and share some more books I’d like to read, but with the proviso that I, as a non-indigenous person, could never actually become the expert. Some non-fiction indigenous works I’d like to read include:

  • Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): this book which explores/exposes early writing about Indigenous Australians has been on my TBR for a few years now. I hope to read it for Lisa’s 2020 Indigenous Literature Week.
  • Stan Grant’s Australia Day (my post on a conversation with Stan Grant): having heard the conversation, I’d now like to read the book!
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (Bill’s The Australian Legend review) which won the Stella Prize in 2018, and which appeals for its story of a strong but controversial Indigenous Australian activist and for its “take” on biography/memoir.

(I am early with Week 3, but I figure that balances the fact that I’m very late with Week 1. I hope I’ll be forgiven.)

Sue Ingleton, Making trouble: Tongued with fire (#BookReview)

November 7, 2019

Book coverIn my recent post on Jessica White talking about her hybrid memoir-biography Hearing Maud, I commented that I’m intrigued by the ways in which biography is being rethought in contemporary literature. When I wrote that, I not only had White’s book in mind, but Sue Ingleton’s Making trouble. You can probably guess why from its sub-sub-title: “an imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon”.

“An imagined history”? And yet, it is classified on the accompanying media release as “Non-fiction (biography, history, crime)”. What does all this mean? Making trouble is about two English women, Harriet Elphinstone Dick (1852-1902) and Alice C. Moon (1855-1894), who, in 1875, left England for Australia. As the media release says, they were champion swimmers at a time when women did not swim in the sea; they refused to wear the corsets that women had been told were necessary to hold themselves up; and they were in love at a time when – well, you know the story. The problem, however, is that there is not enough documentary evidence for a traditional, formal biography. Ingleton writes in her Prologue that there were

no letters, no direct descendants both women being childless, no personal communications, only some newspaper stories, advertisements and sections of a thesis written in 1985.

In other words, their achievements are primarily documented in newspapers (“may the gods bless TROVE”, Ingleton writes): through ads for gymnasiums and physical education lessons, articles on talks and lectures, and death notices. Ingleton also had access to a master’s thesis by Lois Young titled Feminism and the physical sex sex education, physical education and dress reform in Victoria, 1880-1930).

To flesh out their lives, to give sense to these determined, influential women, Ingleton fills in the gaps using her imagination and her understanding of the history of the time. Describing herself as a “detective in time”, she had no choice, she writes, but to call this book “an imagined history” or, what is defined elsewhere, “speculative biography.” There is, in fact, a growing awareness, perhaps even acceptance, of this speculative approach to biography, but it’s tricky. At what point does such a work tip over into historical fiction?

Writing on the Australian Women’s History Network about her imaginative book The convict’s daughter, historian Keira Lindsey shares the contradictory responses she received to her requests for endorsement. One historian said she had “fearlessly carved a new path between history and fiction,” while another was “infuriated that she had gone “beyond the historian’s remit”. Clearly then, it partly depends on the reader. Some of us have more tolerance for straying from fact than others. But the writer’s approach and style also affects how readers respond.

Lindsey, for example, did not footnote, but she referenced the sources “with an index and bibliography”. She also provided “chapter notes at the end of the book for those wanting to know which portions of the book were fact and which were not”  and she explained her approach in an Afterword.

Ingleton took a different approach. She writes a Prologue and provides endnotes. I haven’t read The convict’s daughter so can’t comment on how Lindsey’s approach worked, but I did like Ingleton’s Prologue, albeit she argues that there are three components to her work – the Fact line, the Fiction line, and the Spirit world which, she says, can result in the revelation of “hidden facts” or “invisible truths”. This takes us into somewhat strange territory for a biography, speculative or otherwise, but in fact it doesn’t intrude too disconcertingly into the narrative proper.

“a barely documented history”  (Ingleton)

So, to tell the story of her two women, Ingleton interweaves more formal writing, which conveys the facts as she knows them, with a narrative style that is much closer to historical fiction. It generally works well, by which I mean you can usually tell which is fact, or draws on fact, and which is invented or imagined. While I’m happy to accept the use of imagination to fill in gaps, I did feel some of the imagined sections went a little too far into the historical romance fiction vein. I understand why, though. Ingleton is, among other things, an actor, director and stand-up comedian, and so is drawn to dramatic action. She also wanted to convey the love and romance between these two who dared to be different. How to do that in the absence of letters, was her challenge.

Now then, to the women, and why they’re worth reading about. Have you heard of them? Probably not, which is not unusual for women’s stories. Dick and Moon were, says Ingleton,

early pioneers* of physiotherapy, healthy diet, gymnastics and swimming for women and girls, biodynamic farming, journalism, breaking the barriers of women creating their own businesses and most importantly they were lesbians living together – the final bastion against the Patriarchy.

They also fearlessly advocated for sensible women’s attire, that didn’t cripple them physically and mentally. It’s an amazing story really. We follow them from England, to Australia, back to England when Moon’s father falls ill, and back to Australia. We see them build their gymnasium business in Melbourne, develop a teaching practice in schools, and establish a farm at Beaconsfield. Then we see Moon, devastatingly for Dick, cut loose and move to Sydney where she builds a career in journalism, only to die, before she’s 40, in seemingly mysterious circumstances, circumstances for which Ingleton believes she has an answer and builds a fair case.

All this is set against the backdrop of the burgeoning women’s movement in Australia – it was the time of the New Woman and the suffrage movement. Although Dick and Moon “were never deeply connected to the suffrage movement”, they did move in some of the circles mentioned by Clare Wright in her You daughters of freedom (my review), and “certainly were outspoken in the area of women’s rights over their own bodies and minds”.

Making trouble is an unusual book, but Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon are two women who played a significant role in promoting women’s rights and proving, by their achievements, that women are as capable of living independently as men. They should be better known. Ingleton has done us a service in bringing them to our attention with such passion and flair.

* Not long after, another woman, Marie Bjelke Petersen (1874-1969) also pioneered physical culture for women, and was accused of dressing mannishly.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeSue Ingleton
Making trouble: Tongued with fire: An imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2019
ISBN: 9781925581713

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither Australian literature, 1930s (Pt. 1)?

November 4, 2019

Apologies to those of you not interested in the history of Australian literature, because this week and next I’m continuing my little survey of contemporary writing about Australian literature in the 1930s. My first post discussed the move from “gumleaf and goanna” to other topics, and last week’s focused on discussions about the importance of writing about character. This week and next, I plan to look at some bigger picture discussions about the place of Australian literature.

These posts are, however, based on a somewhat serendipitous search of Trove. There could very well be articles – there probably are – which say some different things. I can only share what I have been able to find in the time I have available. Just as well I’m not producing an academic work, eh?

And here might be a good place to point you to an article by Susan Lever in Inside Story concerning the current parlous state of teaching and research about Australian literature in Australian universities. It’s particularly depressing, now that we have Trove with its rich content, that there is not the support for research into our written heritage and culture – which, of course, feeds into discussions about who we are and where we are going.

Australian literature’s place in the Dominions

Why is it that Australian creative literature, fiction, and poetry has not reached the same high standard as that of South Africa and Canada?” and “What is the place of the Australian novel in the fiction of the British Dominions?” These questions were posed in reports of a lecture given in June 1934 by Firmin McKinnon to the English Association of the University of Queensland. Thomas Firmin McKinnon (1878-1953) was, coincidentally, born in the Yass area not far from were I live. He was a journalist, and, says Desmond Macaulay in the ADB, was nicknamed at Brisbane’s Courier, “the Encyclopaedia”! He and his wife were active in Brisbane’s cultural life, and by the mid 1910s and 1920s, he was “recognized as a tireless literary lecturer and mentor of many young writers”. Among his many roles, he was President of the Queensland Bush Book Club. Macaulay also says that “his Anglocentric conservatism, however, allowed little sympathy for certain literary trends”, so we should keep this in mind when thinking about his views of Australian literature.

The two reports are both in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, one a brief report on a Tuesday and the other clearly a more feature article report on a Saturday. Neither have by-lines as far as I can see, so I’ll just call them Tuesday and Saturday. Tuesday’s is titled “Australian fiction: Where is it lacking” and Saturday’s is “Australian fiction: It’s place in literature”.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday says that McKinnon particularly focused on the fiction of South Africa (represented by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Pauline-Smith, and Norman Giles), Canada (by Martha Ostenso, Corinthia Cannon, and Maza de la Roche), and Australia (by Katharine Susannah Prichard, Brent of Bin Bin, Flora Eldershaw, Marjorie Barnard, Helen Simpson, G. B. Lancaster, and John Dalley). Tuesday shares some of McKinnon’s arguments for the comparative failure of Australian fiction versus that of South Africa and Canada, saying that McKinnon’s conclusion is that “the contrast of nationality, and conflict of international ideas … were deficient in Australia. Even the contrasts provided by the migration era of the gold digging days had disappeared, and Australia was now the most homogeneous race on earth.” By contrast, South Africa had “a continuous conflict of colour and clash of nationalities” and while there was less conflict in Canada, it did have “a contrast of nationalities”. Hmm … sounds a bit simplistic to me. Prichard and Barnard-Eldershaw, for a start, found signifiant issues to tackle within our so-called homogenous culture. As did Christina Stead in Seven poor men of Sydney, but that, her first novel, was only published in the year of this lecture.

Tuesday reported that during the post-lecture comments, one person said “that many books of Australian fiction showed a good deal of slovenliness and lacked any marked spiritual impulse and characterisation”.

Book coverSaturday, as you would expect, provided more detail, including about the authors chosen to represent the three countries. Saturday reports that McKinnon admitted that “we have in Australia, in its history, and in its great cities excellent material and splendid background” but were not producing literature equal to Canada and South Africa. Saturday writes, presumably reporting McKinnon, that:

Unquestionably the impatience of the age has something to do with the decline of great creative literature all over the world. Beauty in literary form cannot flourish to perfection in an age that is wildly excitable, in an age that relishes some snippet about Bradman or Larwood, much more than it would a gem of English.

Have things changed much? Saturday goes on to report (or say) that

Australia has produced some very creditable fiction, but almost every creditable novelist who is writing of Australia has been abroad. Now is there any reason why our purely Australian novelist is not doing better work? There must be. Here in Australia we have a magnificent background for novels, and there is abundance of material. Some of the greatest novelists in the English language, from Jane Austen and Scott to Dickens and Walpole, have found their inspiration in happenings far less outstanding than those that could be found in the development of Australia, and in characters that may be found in any Australian city. But everything lies in the treatment of the subject, and our novelists fall short in the treatment of the story. Now what is the reason?

Llike Tuesday, he reports on the various ideas put forward and rejected by McKinnon, one being the effect of Democracy, itself, which he argued “which tends to the mediocre in everything”. Saturday quotes McKinnon as saying

Art and literature need to be fostered by leisure, good taste, moderate wealth, and cultivated discernment, and these do not flourish best in a democracy. Demos is a poor patron of art and literature.

Sounds a bit elitist don’t you think?

However, McKinnon, fortunately, realised the error of this argument, given Canada and South Africa were also democracies. And so, as Tuesday did before him, Saturday shares McKinnon’s argument that it’s “the lack of contrast and conflict in Australian life” that doesn’t support “literary creativeness”.

The answer? McKinnon says that what Australia needed was the “steady flow of migration” to provide “the clashes”, the opportunity to make comparisons “that are particularly valuable to the creative artist”. I’m not sure I fully agree with McKinnon’s argument regarding literature – I don’t see much evidence of clash of cultures driving Jane Austen’s novels, for example – but I do agree that cultural diversity is a good thing.

Anyhow, it appears that McKinnon gave a version of this talk later in the year, on 17 October, to the Authors’ and Artists’ Association. He again compared Australian writers with Canadian and South African ones, and he again argued that Australian novelists, with some exceptions, lack perspective and imagination, that they’re narrow and insular. Perhaps because this time he was talking to the creators themselves, he was, it appears, a little more positive. He “spoke of the vast and artistic improvement In Australian fiction within the past three years” albeit “all of it [was] written by travelled authors”. He again recommended migration to Australia, but added that “the development of aviation” and “even the Centenary gatherings in Melbourne” would be valuable in “helping to provide that standard of measurement that novelists needed”.

Now, I don’t know the South African and Canadian writers named, so I can’t comment on their relative merits. I’d love to hear from anyone who does know them. Regardless, though, I believe that Australians were producing some very interesting work in the 1930s, alongside the usual more popular fare?

Any comments?

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson

November 3, 2019

Book coverHearing Maud, author Jessica White told us in her conversation with Inga Simpson two weekends ago, was 15 years in the making. This is something I already knew, because, as the result of our involvement in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve met Jess and we’ve talked about this book. However, it was excellent to hear the more detailed story – and at its conclusion rather than partway through. Jess is clearly very happy to have it finally off her hands, but it’s also clear that the book was, and is, very important to her – as you shall see.

The participants

Simpson and White

Simpson (L) and White (R), Muse, 2 Nov 2019

Jessica White has written two novels A curious intimacy, which earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist gong, and Entitlement (my review). She’s been listed for various prizes, and has had essays and short stories published in Australia’s best-known literary journals, including MeanjinSoutherlyOverlandIsland and Griffith Review. She is a lecturer/researcher at the University of Queensland.

Inga Simpson, whom I’ve still to review here (but I will), has written three novels, Mr Wigg, Nest and Where the trees were, the last two of which have been listed for or won prizes. Her latest book, Understory, is a memoir about her love of Australian nature, and especially trees.

The conversation

As Simpson advised at the beginning, the conversation was not a Michael-Parkinson-like hardball interview but more a conversation between friends which, apparently, they are. As a result, it had a warm, natural feel, while still addressing some important points and issues.

Hearing Maud, which I’ve just started reading, is one of those hybrid memoir-biographies that I’ve talked about recently. However, most of those have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935) (whom I read before blogging). White did not know or ever meet Maud so her knowledge has come from her research, which, Simpson said, is a strength of White’s.

White began by talking about the book’s genesis. It started with her PhD research into Rosa Praed, with whom White felt a connection, given they shared a rural, bush background and a love of romance! White was drawn to Praed’s “racy romances”, she said!

However, as she researched Praed, she discovered the existence of Maud, and the more she researched the more she realised what a “terrible life” Maud had had. So, she started writing a biography about Rosa and Maud. This was rejected by a publisher, but in rejecting it he suggested that she make the book “more about deafness”. To her credit, White was not put off. Having initially felt that deafness hadn’t challenged her, she started, as she continued to research Maud’s life, to recognise more about her own life as a deaf person – and then to perceive the intersections and divergences in their two lives.

Patricia Clarke, in her biography of Praed, Rosa! Rosa!, wrote that it was fortuitous for Maud to be born at a time when they were teaching deaf to speak, but White, now understanding more about deafness, saw it differently. It was a time of Social Darwinism – when the idea was to breed out disabilities – so the pressure to conform was strong. This was often, as it was in Maud’s case, counterproductive, if not disastrous. I will write more on this when I review the book, but essentially, a number of factors, including the breakup of Maud’s family and Rosa’s non-inclusive attitudes, resulted in her having a mental breakdown at 28 years old, and being committed to an asylum. She spent the next 39 years of her life there, that is, until she died!

The conversation spent some time on White’s own experiences as a deaf person. Simpson, being a writer, was particularly interested in language, so questioned White about words she’d used in different contexts to those Simpson was familiar with, such as, “coming out” (as a deaf person), “assimilation” (of deaf people into hearing culture), “mainstream” (of people with disabilities into abled-culture), and “colonialism” (of deaf culture and language by hearing culture.) Coming out as a deaf person was a slow process for White, not so much because she was resistant to the idea but because she hadn’t realised how much deafness had impacted her. Living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness. She was, she said, brought up as a hearing person, and just saw herself as “a bad hearing person”. That got a rueful laugh from the audience.

However, White was conscious through her teens and early twenties of a sense of isolation and loneliness. It was not until she was in her 30s that she started think about herself as deaf, and understand its impact on her life. She recognises, though, the paradox (“the poison and the cure” that she discusses in Hearing Maud) of her deafness, because she believes it has had, for her, negatives but also positives. She would not, she says, have become a writer if she hadn’t been deaf, and turned to reading at a young age.

Signing during the conversation

The conversation was signed.

The conversation, at this point, engaged in some of the history and politics of disability (and particularly deafness, of course): on government policy regarding educating deaf children, on the politics of whether to teach signing or not, on the notion (that is embedded in the cochlear implant development) of ”fixing” people. White argued that this medical model of disability opposes the cultural model, which, for example, allows deaf people to sign, to have have deaf friends, to, in fact, be deaf. White observed that signing is strongest in poorer countries where the medical model is not so developed/can’t be afforded! White is now interested in learning to sign, and is pleased that the book has opened pathways for her into deaf communities. She clearly hopes this will result in mutual benefit to them all.

White also explained how her deafness forced her to develop the ability to intensely focus – on faces and body language, for example – to find patterns and thus meaning. This need to attend to detail makes her a good scholar, she believes, albeit also exhausts her!

Returning to more literary topics, White addressed that tricky memoir issue regarding their potential to hurt others. White said that although she says some tough things, this was not an issue in her clearly close family, whom, she described, as over-sharers! Nonetheless, she did pare back some difficult things in her parents’ lives. She also said that the self in the book is her authentic self.

As for what’s next, White has other things planned – as indeed I know she does because, from my meetings with her, I know she has a mile-a-minute mind! One project is an ecobiography about the pioneering Western Australian botanist, Georgiana Molloy, in which she wants to show the importance of biodiversity. She defined ecobiography, as being about how ecology shapes who we are. I’m intrigued by the various ways the biography form is being explored, expanded, teased out in contemporary literature, so I look forward to White’s ecobiography take.

Q & A

There was a short Q&A, which I won’t share in full, but I did ask White why she’d decided to combine memoir and biography. She said that she wanted to tell Maud’s story, but that hers created a foil or mirror for that story, and in doing so, it enriched both stories.

Another questioner, commenting on deaf people having to conform to the speaking world, asked what the speaking world could do to make life easier for deaf people. White said that many people don’t understand the feeling of powerlessness that disability can bring. She hopes the book will help people see that there are different ways of being.

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday 2 November, 4.30-5.30pm