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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers, loquacious?

June 13, 2016

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!)

Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press

Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press

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?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2016 1:21 am

    I love this, Sue, thank you!
    (I’d better get cracking and finish reading his book so that I can be quite sure that he hasn’t qualified his intemperate remark somewhere else in the last remaining chapters!!)

    • June 14, 2016 8:03 am

      Haha Lisa, I had fun, though lying in bed this morning I thought of more angles I could have taken. You’d better tell me if he rescues himself.

  2. June 14, 2016 7:18 am

    Its such a nonsensical line of thought to equate a country’s size with the length of its literary output. By that train of thought, my own country of Wales (pocket size) would produce only novellas and somewhere like Andorra authors would be reduced to writing postcard length pieces.

    • June 14, 2016 8:09 am

      Ah you made me laugh Karen with that. In fact as I was lying in bed this am I thought I could just as easily argue, with MY examples, that Australian writing is on the spare side and that that’s due to all our deserts!

  3. Moira Nolan permalink
    June 14, 2016 12:31 pm

    I immediately thought of Cloudstreet by Tim Winton as an example of a novel with large geographic and temporal scope conveying wide skies and huge tracts of land (furiously cleared) which attempted a whole history of a people’s evolution from pioneer to modern day urban West Australian wo/man.
    Taking up fictional space could also be about being a bit sloppy with writing, (I have thought ‘The slap’ by Tsiolkas a bit too long winded), or old fashioned, so that the prose seems drawn out, its style pedantic or concerned with details we can’t be bothered with (does ‘For the term of his natural life’ read like that now?).
    Christopher Koch’s Out of Ireland conveys large Tasmanian skies and openness of the physical environment imprinting itself on the protagonists but I think the quoted ambit claim of Jean-Francois Vernay of Australian writers being ‘somewhat loquacious’ or ‘not inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space’ is hyperbole – a cultural generalisation that doesn’t hold up. Perhaps a good organising principle for a book but easy to refute, as you have done, and one could characterise French fiction that way too! For example ‘Les déferlantes’ (‘The Breakers’), a 2008 novel by a contemporary French author Claudie Gallay, which whilst being an ensemble piece goes on and on about the sweeping waves of Brittany and the large grey skies etc; or ‘Good-bye up there’ (translated) by Pierre Lemaitre, a recent best seller and literary prize winner, which is huge in scope and also length (though I wouldn’t call it sloppy).
    I will have to study francophone New Caledonian literature and see what it is like as regards long-windedness and wide skies!

    • June 14, 2016 3:43 pm

      Thanks so much Moira for including a recent French novel. I could only think of Gide who was older, Camus, whose novels tending to be short to medium sized, and Simone de Beauvoir whose only novel I read was fairly long (though I don’t recollect enough to say whether it was also loquacious! Like you I don’t know francophone New Caledonian literature.

      As for The slap, though, and your comment re its being “concerned with details we can’t be bothered with”, I don’t recollect feeling that. Then again, I think I’m a bit of a voyeur and tend to love details, whether or not they are relevant to the novel! Makes me a poor reviewer I think!

      • ian darling permalink
        June 14, 2016 6:55 pm

        I love that crack about Hugo and Richardson! This sounds rather bonkers to me. Is there perhaps a lot of garrulous stuff in the Australian bush ballads?

        • June 14, 2016 10:35 pm

          Haha, Ian. Good question, though I’m not sure our ballads are any more garrulous than anyone else’s! I do love your “garrulous” synonym for “loquaciousness”.

      • Moira Nolan permalink
        June 14, 2016 10:59 pm

        Yes whispering gums, voyeur, yes, I remember that detail in ‘The Slap’ about the guy peeing in the shower, how that was something men do (or do women do it too?)…! it seemed very … contemporary?!….

        • June 15, 2016 2:07 am

          Oh, I don’t remember THAT detail Moira. I suppose women might do it too, though I suspect it would be less common, women generally having higher levels of hygiene? I’m not sure that behaviour would be contemporary though I suspect writing about it might be!

  4. Lithe lianas permalink
    June 14, 2016 10:19 pm

    If we are talking loquaciousness (or loquacity if you prefer) can we go past the Russians? A ‘sprawling country’ there, WG.

  5. June 15, 2016 5:22 am

    I think France and Russia has everyone beat on long novels loquacious or otherwise and one is moderately sized and the other is sprawling so surely one cannot make an equation between size of country and length of novel. If you average it all out, Australia probably falls somewhere in the comfortable middle, some really long books, some really short but most of medium length. Enjoyed your post 🙂

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