Monday musings on Australian literature: Confronting Australian novels

Recently I wrote a post about reading difficult novels and proposed categories for different sorts of “difficulties”. One of those categories was “emotionally confronting”, but I realise now that a better category would have been “emotionally and/or intellectually confronting”. By intellectually confronting I don’t mean challenging in terms of style, language, structure, but in terms of ideas. Many books which confront us with difficult ideas can, of course, evoke an emotional response in us, but I didn’t explore that in my original post. However, having just read Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review) I now plan to.

An intellectually confronting book is, I’d say, one that shocks us out of our complacency. This is what Christos Tsiolkas wants to do. In a conversation with Heather Taylor Johnson in Meanjin‘s Canberra issue, he expressed his concern that:

We are reading for confirmation of ourselves rather than to challenge ourselves and I think that is a real danger.

And said, in response to a question regarding mixed reactions to The slap, that

I want to pose questions that are unsettling or troubling.

He certainly does that. I’d love to hear what you think about novels that confront you – that unsettle your mind, shake your world view, disturb your core. Meanwhile, I’m going talk about some of the authors whose novels have surprised or challenged me over the last 2-3 decades.

Thea Astley could hardly, I think, be said to write to confirm ourselves. Her books face head on the ugliness in our culture – between white and black, rich and poor, city and country. The first book of hers that I read, the ironically titled A kindness cup, deals with racism and violence in a country town. The multiple effects of rain shadow (my review) explores the impact on a group of people of a violent episode on Palm Island. Interestingly, given my recent post on the subject, one of the voices telling the story is indigenous. Drylands is concerned with the impoverishment of the spirit as she sees it in late 20th century Australia. I wonder what she’d think now! One of her characters in The multiple effects of rainshadow says:

There must be a million readers out there who crave boredom! Who love the dangling participle! Who wallow in truisms and fatuous theorisings! … Slap in your popular aphorisms, buddy, but don’t make ‘em think!

Helen Garner has to be one of our bravest writers. Her nonfiction books, The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation, and her novel, The spare room, in particular, demonstrate her willingness to explore ideas that may be unpalatable, that run against the status quo. Somehow, she’s managed to confront the resultant criticism – which she’s faced since her first critically acclaimed but also slammed first novel, Monkey grip –  and keep on going. I’ve said it before – and will probably say it again – I don’t always agree with Garner, but I like that she confronts us with ideas that we need to think about in our dealings with others. Whether you agree with her take on the Ormond College sexual harassment case or whether you relate to her frustration with her terminally-illl friend, you have to admit that she doesn’t let us get away with “soft” thinking.

Elizabeth Jolley unsettled readers from the beginning with her willingness to expose the soul’s darkness in ordinary people and to have them enact that darkness in often shocking ways. It was Weekly’s ruthless action at the end of The newspaper of Claremont Street, the second or third Jolley book I read, that sold me. Really! I soon learnt not to be surprised by anything her characters thought or did. Jolley is more about the interior, the psyche, than the other writers I’m mentioning here but she’s no less confronting to our comfort.

Andrew McGahan‘s first two novels Praise and 1988 are examples of Grunge Lit or Generation X literature. I found them, particularly Praise, confronting because of the nihilism, hopelessness of the characters. They have no goals, they immerse themselves in sex, drugs and alcohol rather than “honest work”.  According to Wikipedia, Grunge Lit, a term not necessarily accepted by those it’s been applied to, did not last long. But, in these two books, McGahan did present Australian readers with something that made us sit up and take note – not just for the writing, but for the unappealing lifestyles he presented.

Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance (my review) is an historical novel, so we could perhaps tell ourselves that things are different now, but any honest reader would realise that Bobby’s statement in the novel that –

We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours

– continues to have ramifications today, and that, in fact, we are still not very good at hearing their story. Scott is just one of several contemporary indigenous writers, such as Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and Jeanine Leane, who are starting to confront us with their story, with their perspective of what living in Australia today is like for those who have been disenfranchised.

Christos Tsiolkas needs little introduction if you’ve been reading my recent posts. He has been shocking readers pretty much since his first novel, Loaded, which I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read. I did, though, hear about it! His books are firmly urban/suburban and tend to be set within immigrant subcultures. As far as I understand, most if not all traverse similar subject matter, the cultural conflict, social mobility, sexual identity confusion, racism, that often lead to aggression if not actual violence. His language is raw, and unapologetic, but his characters are real. You may not like them all, you may feel you aren’t like them or that you don’t know people like them, but they seem to be part of contemporary Australia, an Australia in which ridicule of and violence against people who are different seems to be getting worse. At least, I fear it’s not getting better. Tsiolkas wants us to think about this, to not sit in our comfortable middle-class suburban homes and worry about nothing more than our generally self-serving concerns.

Australian feminist, Anne Summers, said in a lecture that “I found [Helen Garner’s] The First Stone to be brave and honest and quite confronting–the hallmarks of a very good book.” I think she’s right. There’s nothing wrong with reading books that reflect ourselves and explore our concerns, but surely our reading has the most value when we are shaken out of the familiar and made to face other worlds and different ideas.

Now, over to you …

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Confronting Australian novels

  1. Great post! It has me thinking. I have read Jo Cinque and The Spare Room (but not Monkey Grip) by Helen Garner and was equally impressed by both, tackling completely difficult issues, I’m not sure I felt particularly confronted by them, though I can see that they could be seen as such. I’ve only read McGahan’s Cloud Atlas so can’t comment on his earlier work. Definitely agree with Tsiolkas and Kim Scott. A couple I could add to the list would be:

    Jennifer Mills – Gone – Mills tells the story of a man just released from an institution finding his way, literally the hard way, back to his home town. It is desolate and despairing. There is no joy in the novel and I found it confronting to think that, for some in our society, this is their reality.

    Rohan Wilson – The Roving Party – I found the violence in this book confronting. I have read a bit of violence in fiction and generally don’t have much of a problem with it but the violence in this novel had a lasting impact on me.

    • Thanks Sharkell. Those are two books I haven’t read, though I have Gone on my pile here, and would like to read The roving party. Why do you think the violence in it was more confronting than in others?

      I didn’t find The spare room confronting but I know some who did, though they may not describe it as “confronting”. They might say “distasteful” but I think that’s pretty much the same in this context. I thought she was amazingly honest about expressing her frustration and anger, particularly when she used her own name for the narrator and we know it was pretty autobiographical. Joe Cinque is really complex I think. I found it uncomfortable to talk about because I felt Garner didn’t try to understand Anu Singh who sounded like a woman with serious problems. That didn’t excuse her but I’d have liked some analysis. But it’s hard to say that because if what happened to Joe happened to my son I’d be devastated, and so I found it really confronting to talk about.

  2. I wrote my honours thesis on Grunge Lit looking at McGahan and Tsiolkas’s first novels. I always thought Tsiolkas was an ethical writer, by which I mean that he never allows us to get complacent, he’s always questioning the way things are–it’s good we have such a brave writer. It’s no mistake, I think, that Loaded and Praise are set in urban environments. The argument is that that in itself was against a tradition of Australian writing set in the bush. I think I found more philosophy in McGahan’s work than he would admit to at the time, but also in 1988, he really tackles those defining Australian myths of mateship.

    • Oh thanks too, Kirsty. I think you are totally right that Tsiolkas is an ethical writer. Thanks for adding your perspectives. It’s so long since I’ve read the McGahan books. 1988 was set on a lighthouse near Darwin wasn’t it? Or, am I making that up? That’s interesting about tackling the mateship culture/tradition. The city-bush dichotomy is still somewhat evident in Aus writing isn’t it, though more and more seems to be urban these days (particularly contemporary novels).

      • I can’t remember a lighthouse in 1988, but it’s also a long time since I read it. I know they travelled from Brisbane to a remote outcrop in the Northern Territory to record cloud patterns.

        I guess we’re probably a bit less romantic about the bush now, and given most of us live in cities, it makes sense that our fiction would reflect that. Perhaps that was the watershed moment grunge delivered–a literature that articulated the experience of young urban dwellers?

        • Thanks for continuing the conversation Kirsty. I’ve just checked some reviews and they say that the two men go up to NT to do weather observations from a lighthouse. I guess I remembered that because my brother did that for three months on a Tasmanian lighthouse.

          Interesting point about grunge literature and the bush. I think we still have an element of romance about it – at least I do – but confirming our urban-ness (can’t say urbanity!) could very well have been an outcome of Grunge literature. I think I feel another Monday musings coming on! Thanks for that!

  3. Interesting post. I like your discussing the intellectual component of reading, and the challenge of meeting ‘unsettling and troubling’ writing. Recently I read the Dutch writer Herman Koch’s The Dinner. It fits this category. Not that it’s difficult to read, but that it leaves the reader ‘disturbed’. And yet, I found it utterly gratifying just because of that. But of course, I can’t say that will happen every time I read a book that’s ‘troubling’. Sometimes the line between ‘troubling’ and ‘far-fetched’ could be blurred. 😉

    • Thanks Arti … I’ve heard of The dinner. Must get to it. I hadn’t really thought in terms of a line between troubling snd farfetched. I don’t think the books I’ve mentioned come close to that but I’ll have to think about those that might. You are right that intellectually troubling books aren’t necessarily difficult reads. In fact, in a way, being too difficult would defeat the purpose? Hmmm…

  4. Oh yes! I think it is important to read books that challenge our world view and/or tell us things that make us uncomfortable. I remember the first time I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I was floored, I had no idea I had never considered why didn’t I know? I was an emotional mess for a long time over that one. But I am glad for it. There are other books, but that is the one that popped first into my head.

  5. Loved the post, and so glad you mentioned Thea Astley. If we are allowed to adopt J M Coetzee as an Australian writer, I would nominate him as quite confronting. ‘Disgrace’ is one book that stays with me. I also found Kate Grenville’s books confront many things about Australia’s past as does Inga Clendinnen’s writings. Also Kate Holden’s, In My Skin, was very confronting about prostituting oneself for drugs.


    • Thanks Meg. Yes, yours all great examples too … Have read all those. I’m uncomfortable about adopting Coetzee’s pre-Aus books but if I did, Disgrace would be there. It’s way up there in the confronting stakes. I did think of Under my skin, and Grenville. The secret river ended up being more confronting than she bargained for I expect!

  6. I’m still reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the True North which I’ve had since September. In the first half he mitigates the horrors of the POW experience on the Burma Railway with interludes in Australia but then getting toward the end of the war he writes pages of the cruelty of one man to another although he does try to show reasons for the Japanese and Korean behavior, so that I can only read for a short time. I will finish the book but I never want to re read it. Fictional violence seems to affect me more than other confronting issues; I never finished The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thoma Kenneally. I was interested in the comment on The Dinner. I was horrified but then realised it was satire. I agree about Garner not properly exploring the motivations of Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s consolation. I’ve kept away from Grunge Lit but if I see 1988 or loaded at th elibrary I might be tempted to read one. and I should read more Thea Astley

    • Welcome Carrie, and thanks for joining in. I’m hoping to read the Flanagan some time soon as I have it here. I did finish Jimmie Blacksmith and toyed with including Keneally but wanted to just mention a few to get the ball rolling. I’m really pleased to see the other books being suggested. I can manage written fictional violence more than filmed. I can, I think, make myself just read the words and not visualise it. But, generally, I don’t seek out violence in my reading! As for the rest I’d say yes, read more Astley. I need to read more too! She was rather prolific.

  7. Thought-provoking (confronting?) post – made me wonder if I’m too safe in my own writing. To your list I would add Julia Leigh’s The Hunter. Her protagonist is a predator, not alienated but utterly connected to his environment, thus questioning the idea that as humans become more natural they will become more humane. She writes against romantic ideas and fantasies about nature and human solidarity. Many people were offended. Others were upset that the hunter was unredeemed, but the lack of redemption was not a failing, but the point of the novel. Nam Le’s stories and Dorothy Porter’s verse novels can also be confronting.

    • Thanks Bryce. I saw the film The hunter, but haven’t read the book. What you say rings true though to my understanding of it. As I was writing the post both Nam Le and Dorothy Porter crossed my mind but I decided to stop at a few and hope others would join the conversation. I’m grateful that you and others have.

  8. You keep reminding me that I need to read some Thea Astley! It’s time to order I think. I read Careless last year and remember thinking there were characters I wanted to shake down. And The Slap of course brings urban Australian life into sharp, discomforting focus. I really like that. Disgrace, also, I found disturbing and found it hard to ‘like’. I agree Nam Le’s characters are often challenging – with little comfort there. Of course I would go back to Voss, with its twitching moments of social unease and crazed grandeur.

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