Monday musings on Australian literature: Where is Australia’s George Orwell?

George Orwell, 1933 (Presumed Public Domain, from Wikipedia)

George Orwell, 1933 (Presumed Public Domain, from Wikipedia)

In a comment on my review last week of Kate Grenville’s One life, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) asked “Where’s Australia’s George Orwell?”. This was in reference to the idea that more novelists should write about climate change to help change public opinion. Interesting question, I thought, and one that I could explore in a Monday Musings. You might all be relieved, in fact, to have something different from my recent list-focused musings.

Before I answer the question – and then throw it open to you – it would be sensible to clarify my understanding of the question. (See, I’ve been well-grounded in essay skills: first, define your terms!) To put it simply, I believe Lisa was asking where is the Australian author who is driven to identify injustice, oppose inhumanity, and promote social conscience? That is, an author like Orwell – the man who coined terms like “cold war”, “big brother” and “thought police”, the man who used satire, allegory and other rhetorical devices in his fiction and non-fiction to show us the error of our ways. I hope this is what Lisa meant; this is, anyhow, how I am reading her question.

An Australian Orwell?

Well, a name did pop immediately into my head – Thea Astley. Of course, she’s dead, but so is George Orwell. I suspect Lisa was looking for a living Orwell to speak to us right now on “now” topics”, but, bear with me anyhow.

Astley, like Orwell, wrote in multiple forms – novels, short stories, essays – though Astley didn’t write the sorts of personal experience memoirs that Orwell did in books like Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. And, unlike Orwell who travelled far and wide, physically and with his pen, Astley’s works were firmly based on Australia. But, like Orwell, she had an acerbic eye and a satiric pen, and she used it to good effect.

Ashley was also a wordsmith, albeit of a different sort to Orwell. She used words that frequently sent (and still send) her readers to the dictionary, and her passion was to “carve a good sentence”.

So far so good. However, having considered Astley, I’m now going to, reluctantly, reject her as our George Orwell. Not because she isn’t a satirist because she is, but because her satire isn’t as explicitly political as his. She was interested in the treatment of outcasts and misfits, regardless of the reason for their “otherness”, which could be race, religion, economic status, age, gender, and so on.  She satirised suburban and small town life, particularly in her first novels. She also tackled more political issues such as white Australia’s treatment of indigenous people in A kindness cup and It’s raining in mango. In Coda she satirised the treatment of ageing. And in her last novel, Drylands, issues like gender, power, modern technology, and sport attracted the attention of her sharp pen.

Astley was surely aware of the political implications of the issues she targeted, but she didn’t explicitly focus on the politics. She was, I think, more interested in the social, cultural and personal ramifications of the behaviours she put before us.

We certainly have political satirists, but they tend to be performers rather than authors.

In 2013, the Sydney Writers’ Festival included a panel discussion titled  The Satirists, which asked the question:

If Australians claim to be anti-authoritarian rabble-rousers, where is the canon of contemporary satirical novels reflecting this stereotype? What are the satirical traditions in Australian literature?

The panel included novelist David Foster, actor/novelist/memoirist William McInnes and poet Alan Wearne. I haven’t read Foster (my bad, I know) or Alan Wearne. And, I don’t think McInnes’ brand of humour, entertaining though it is, is quite what Lisa was asking. Contemporary writers I’ve read included Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan who have written some satirical novels but they are not known primarily as satirists.

So, is there anyone else – writing now – who is making it his or her business to tackle the big questions of our time, questions to do with refugees, indigenous dispossession, climate change? In Australia, or elsewhere?

POSTSCRIPT: I had just scheduled this post for publishing when up popped a blog post from today’s The Guardian. Written by Sam Twyford-Moore and titled “Why so serious: does Australian literature have a funny person problem?”, it starts with the following:

Australian authors show off their satirical chops on social media every day. So why doesn’t more of that wit spill on to the published page?

Of course, not all satire is “funny”, but, regardless, he doesn’t have an answer.

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Where is Australia’s George Orwell?

  1. Well, it’s been a big night in Australian politics tonight, and I have no doubt the political satirists will be burning the midnight oil to make us chuckle over it tomorrow!

  2. I’m a big Thea Astley fan. I was first introduced to her at university when I read It’s Raining in Mango. It’s been a few years since I last read any of her novels but I want to read (and re-read) some of her novels for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I have a copy of A Descent for Gossips ready to read and her new biography looks brilliant.
    An interesting blog post.

  3. You make a good case for Astley. Perhaps she was not purposely political like Orwell was but social satire is just as important and potentially political I think. And what a well-timed Guardian post to pop up!

    • Yes, I agree, Stefanie … Social satire is important and hers does have a political edge … in many cases. Though, we shouldn’t need politics to tell us how to treat “other” should we.

  4. When you ask the questions about tackling big social issues, I have immediate answers, but they are not in the satirical mode. Climate change: James Bradley’s Clade; Aboriginal dispossession: Alexis Wrights’ The Swan Book; Refugees: hmmm, that’s a harder one and one I’m addressing in an article for Overland right now. But, yes, I’m a bit stumped when it comes to really satirical work. I haven’t read Steve Tolz, but I think he is a comic novelist (Fraction of the Whole and Quicksand are his two novels). Maybe Sam T-M is right, we just take ourselves much too seriously…

    • Thanks for all those Rachel. I considered a lot of those because as you say, we do have a lot of writers tackling social issues. We have quite a few memoirs and some short stories about refugees from the past, but I’m not so sure about the contemporary situation. I’ll look out for your Overland piece.

      I thought of Toltz too, but as you said I think he’s more comic than satirical. I really enjoyed A fraction of the whole (and reviewed it here early in my blog).

  5. Anson Cameron’s ‘The Last Pulse’ is some pretty solid satire on water rights in Australia (an important political issue). Seizure’s ‘Rhetoric’ web-book is all about political satire (and includes me, sorry) I’d say The Swan Book is satirical – it’s bleak and funny, anyway. And of course Clade and Anchor Point address climate change (if not satirically). Big-noting myself again, ‘A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’ has some good jokes and is one-third about climate change. John A Scott’s ‘N’ is a brutal skewering of refugee policy (and many other authoritarian trends in our government); Christy Collins’ new novella ‘The End of Seeing’ addresses the theme of seeking asylum (with a European focus) and Marlee Jane Ward’s ‘Welcome to Orphancorp’ looks at children in detention and the corporatisation of culture. Overland’s short stories are a good place to see social issues addressed in fiction: I had a short story about refugees in there but for satire it was brilliantly outclassed by Wayne Macauley’s hilarious/horrible reflection on consumer culture ‘A comment about free market forces’ More generally, I think one of the strengths of AS Patric’s ‘Black Rock White City’ was the unflinching way it addressed migration and racism and the horrible weight of all that.
    Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Orwell’s commentary on social issues was usually written in the guise of genre fiction – 1984 is sci-fi, Animal Farm some kind of fantasy. These are not straight-up lit novels. These days a lot of Australians are leery about reading genre. If you want social commentary, though, genre is often the place to go.

    • That’s a good point Jane – I mean re genre and satire.

      I certainly think your A wrong turn … fits, and I did think of it but was trying to focus on a long body of work. However, I should have mentioned some emerging satirists/satires like you/yours! I must read some Macauley.

      Anyhow, thanks for all these ideas. They are great.

  6. George Orwell was a giant. I imagine Animal Farm and 1984 are the two most referenced books in the English language. No one in Australia is close. I agree Astley has some elements, she is searing about Queensland’s guilt over their (ongoing) treatment of Aborigines. I think Frank Hardy would like to have been but he didn’t have Orwell’s skill as a writer. I think Orwell used a number of different genres to address his concerns about inequality in all authoritarian societies so my suggestion from left field is Jane Rawson. She’s already done a survival handbook and a dystopian SF, now if only she could be persuaded to spend a year fighting alongside the Kurds …

  7. An interesting question that Lisa raised and indeed, what I miss most in Australian literature is authors who write on political themes. Well some do, like Alex Miller on Aboriginal issues in three of his novels (Landscape of Farewell, Journey to the Stone Country and Coal Creek), James Bradley with Clade and Mireille Juchau with The World Without Us on environmental issues, for instance. But at the Byron Bay Writers Festival recently both Bradley and Juchau denied there novels were conceived as ‘climate fiction’, and in my interview with him (in my book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors) Alex Miller denied those novels were about Aboriginal issues. He said he writes about his friends. Perhaps authors deny being political because you’re not supposed to lecture or be didactic in your fiction, though it’s easy to circumvent that part of it…
    Larissa Behrendt’s two novels are overtly political in part about Aboriginal issues and Christos Tsiolkas writes about class, racism, etc.
    Coming from continental Europe in my mid-twenties, this lack of political content certainly surprised me. In Spain, Italy, France, Germany there are or were so many authors debating political issues in their novels…
    Lisa, by the way, I tried several times to follow your blog, but it never seems to work… Any ideas?

    • Thanks Annette … that’s a good question you pose, that is, that Aussie authors may feel that you are not supposed to be didactic in your fiction. But, as you say, you can write “issues” novels without being didactic. Love your reference to Tsiolkas. I think some writers – both indigenous and non-indigenous are offering up debates about indigenous dispossession/settler issues – which is good to see.

      I”d love to see more satire though, but any questioning/shining a light on critical issues is good to see.

  8. What an interesting discussion. I don’t think we have an Orwell. I think Thea Astley is a fair comparison to Orwell. I agree with Wadhollow as to Orwell being a giant. Katharine Susannah Prichard a socialist/communist. was another Australian author who came to mind. She wrote in support of the underdogs of Australia, and was very political in her fiction as well as nonfiction writings.

    • Thanks Meg … More good ideas. It’s interesting that we are finding a lot of authors who have dealt with social justice issues, but not many satirists or authors who have really targeted the politics of it all the way Orwell did.

  9. I do t know anywhere near enough about Australian writers to answer that question. I suspect you could easily find individual works but nothing which would represent a body of work as Orwell delivered. But of I take the question further afield is there anyone in other parts of the world that would be an Orwell pf today?

  10. In the 2003 Colin Simpson lecture, David Marr exhorted Australian writers to look their country in the face and tell the story of what it has become. Just as Patrick White wrote his novels in response to the old philistinism, Marr hoped that contemporary writers would “dismantle the new philistinism of John Howard’s Australia by exploring it to its depths through our writing and find absolutely unexpected ways of doing this. The role of the writer is always to surprise.” Since Marr spoke those words, this need to focus on what is happening to our country has become even more urgent. The marvelous conversation that arose in response to your post demonstrates that many writers are taking up this challenge.

    • Thanks Bryce. While I don’t think writers HAVE to write about anything in particular, I do love it when authors take up social justice issues (which I think includes the environment) and shine a light on what they think is happening. I agree that many writers are doing exactly that — including one before that lecture, Elliot Perlman’s Three dollars.

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