Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers, loquacious?
It’s a brave person who tries to characterise a nation’s literature. But this is apparently what Australian-French writer Jean-Francois Vernay has done in his book A brief take on the Australian novel (published this year by Wakefield Press). I haven’t read the book, but Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is currently reading it, and she challenged me to write this post. So, yes ma’am, here I am!
To be fair, Lisa’s challenge came from my comment on her blog to Vernay’s statement that there’s
a certain loquaciousness among Australian writers… accustomed to large geographical sweeps of land … and not inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space.
Now, dear readers, I contest this! Perhaps Vernay is not meaning to sound as sweeping about it as I am reading him, but it does sound a bit like the pot calling the kettle black or, to put it in perspective, like Victor Hugo calling Henry Handel Richardson long-winded! I mean really! I’m not sure this even warrants an investigation, but I’m going to take the opportunity to point out that Australians can write tight, spare prose, neat novellas and short novels with the best of them. Our country might be sprawling and all over the place, but our writers certainly aren’t – unless it is warranted. Because of course we do have long books – Henry Handel Richardson’s magnum opus, The fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy is an example, as is Xavier Herbert’s Poor fellow, my country. Peter Carey has been known to go on a bit too (in books like Illywhacker) and Winton’s Cloudstreet is not particularly short either.
But, before I continue, perhaps I should define my terms, particularly regarding “loquaciousness” and “fictional space”. According to most dictionaries, “loquacious” means “wordy” or “excessive talk”, meanings which carry a value judgement regarding quality (or lack thereof). “Fictional space” is not the sort of concept you find in dictionaries, but I’m understanding it to refer primarily to physical quantity, that is to “big” or long books. Now I contend that just because a book is big, just because it takes up fictional space, doesn’t mean it is excessive, that is, “loquacious” (and therefore of poorer quality). So, there are two arguments to be had here. One is whether Australian books that take up fictional space are or aren’t loquacious. The other is whether Australian books take up fictional space, in the first place, that is, whether Australian authors are capable of depriving themselves of this largesse that’s apparently open to them! It’s this latter that I’m going to briefly tackle (emulating Vernay’s idea of a “brief take”) in what’s left to me of this post. (Yes, I know that I can make the rules about how much is left to me in my own blog, but far be it from me to sprawl over this essentially limitless space I have here! I know how to be tight. Don’t comment on that!)
I want to tackle the second argument because, of course, like most literary cultures, we do have our long books (including, admittedly, some big, baggy – and potentially loquacious – monsters). Without taking time here to research examples for you, I’d argue that the majority of the longer Australian books I’ve read have tended to make good use of the words they’ve used. However, it doesn’t take much research for me to argue against the idea that Australians aren’t “inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space”. I just need to point to our long tradition of novellas.
I have many posts tagged “novellas“, some for specific books (not all Australian) and some for posts about the form. Very early in this blog, in fact, I wrote a post titled Little treasures. In that post I listed some of my favourite novellas to that time, and included several Australians:
- Thea Astley’s A kindness cup
- Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus
- Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review)
- Elizabeth Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont Street
- David Malouf’s Fly away Peter
- Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living
And these are just a small sample.
Since then, I’ve read many more Australian novellas. But beyond them, my reading experience is that Australian novels are, overall, relatively short. A quick survey of the last 30 Australian novels I’ve read reveals that only five had more than 350 pages, which seems a reasonable marker in my mind for shorter versus longer books. Interestingly, four of those five were by male writers. Is there another hypothesis here, either regarding who writes the longest books, or, whether there’s a gender preference in the books Vernay based his statement on? I appreciate that my little survey is by no means scientific, but even non-scientific research can form the basis of an hypothesis can’t it?
I found online in The Age a discussion back in 2009 of the original French version (Panorama du roman australien) of Jean-Francois Vernay’s book that Lisa is reading. The article’s author, Simon Caterson, reports on his interview with Vernay:
Vernay says that Panorama, which covers early convict novels such as Quintus Servinton and For the Term of His Natural Life through to the work of contemporary authors such as Christos Tsiolkas and Alexis Wright …
Well, there you have it … these four books/authors used by Vernay to exemplify his research represent the more fictionally spacious end of Australian writing! I rest my case!
Seriously though, I’ve just had a little bit of fun here. I haven’t read Vernay. I don’t know how or whether he qualifies his statement. But, I did find it fascinating that he made his statement at all and wanted to tease it out a little, scientifically or not. So, whether or not Australia’s long novels are loquacious – and I’d say in general they’re not – my prime point is that we don’t produce an inordinate number of long (fictionally spacious) novels in the first place. What say you?