Monday musings on Australian literature: Books that matter

In the comments on her post about Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) commented that we need “politically aware authors to keep writing books that matter”. Hmm, I thought, most books I read matter, I think, but then a few posts later, when reviewing Jared Thomas’ Songs that sound like blood, she made clear that she meant by this “a yearning for books that tackle the issues of our time”. Ah, I thought, I can work with that idea – and so, here I am, working with it. Thanks Lisa for another Monday Musings inspiration.

The first question is, what are the issues of our time?

Off the top of my head, they would include indigenous rights, climate change and the associated issue of clean energy, asylum-seekers and refugees, women’s rights (including domestic violence), and sexual identity. There are many more, but let’s just work with these.

The second question, of course, is whether contemporary Australian literature – and here I’m meaning fiction, short and long form – is dealing with these?

Before I discuss this, a disclaimer, which is that, for me, books that matter don’t have to deal overtly with issues of the day. Jane Austen has often been criticised for not writing about the big issues of her day, which included the Napoleonic Wars and the impact of the industrial revolution. And yet, I’d argue that she did write about important personal and social issues – particularly concerning the condition of women. She just showed them – rather than explicitly told them.

So, let’s turn now to today’s issues – and I’ll confine myself to books written this century:

  • Jeanine Leane's Purple threadsIndigenous rights: slowly, very slowly, we are seeing more books written by indigenous people which expose the impact on them of two hundred years of dispossession. There’s historical fiction like Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) and Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight (my review), and more contemporary books like Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review). These are just a few, but writers like Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Ellen van Neerven, Tara June Winch and Alexis Wright are getting their stories out. It’s up to us to seek them and read them so we can inform ourselves better. Lisa’s annual Indigenous Literature Week provides a good opportunity for us to do that.
  • Climate and energy: some of the strongest books here are the cli-fi books like Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review), Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review) and Annabel Smith’s The ark (my review), but other books like Stephen Orr’s The hands (my review) show the longterm impact on farms of climate change. It’s a topic which lends itself to speculative fiction, but it’s good to see more realistic fiction also exploring the subject.
  • Asylum seekers and refugees: the plight of asylum seekers and refugees has been reasonably well covered in recent years, from all sorts of angles, by non-fiction writers, but what about fiction? Nam Le’s The boat included short stories about refugees – albeit Vietnamese boat people of the late 20th century – and A S Patric’s Miles Franklin award-winning Black rock white city deals with Bosnian refugees in Australian suburbs. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection Foreign soil explores the lives of migrants, and includes a story set in a detention centre. Irma Gold’s Two step forward (my review) also includes a (memorable to me) detention centre story – from an employee’s point of view. There are also children’s and YA books in this area but I’m not sure the specific issues we are facing right now are being actively covered by our fiction writers. If we believe that fiction can have a positive impact, then …
  • Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm, book coverWomen’s rights: the most obvious recent book exposing women’s lack of “real” equality, is Charlotte Wood’s dystopian novel, The natural way of things (my review). Interestingly, the Copyright Council, in its Reading Australia program, listed last March (that is, 2016), “8 books to read on International Women’s Day”. It’s a good list, but none of the fictional works were written after 2000. Hmmm … I might have added a book like Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm (my review) which exposes at a more domestic, personal level the challenges confronted by contemporary mothers, and the way societal values and attitudes contribute, or even sometimes, create these challenges.
  • Sexual identity: my sense is that this area is being increasingly covered by YA authors, exemplified by the book Lisa praised when she made the statement I’m exploring here. Australia has a growing number of LGBTQI writers. The Australian Women Writers’ (AWW) Challenge maintains a list of Lesbian and Queer Woman Writers, which is useful for anyone wishing to read more diversely. This is not to say, though, that all of their works are political or issues-based – and why should they be? Many write books in which diverse (aka non-heteronormative) sexual identities are a given. That in itself can be read as a political act because we all know the value of seeing ourselves reflected in the arts – in movies, television, books, and so on. Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review), for example, includes queer characters but their “queerness” is not the issue being explored. This is the point we are aiming for in the real world, but we are not completely there yet. As Yvette Walker wrote in a post for the AWW Challenge, “We appear. We disappear. We are in. We are out.” It’s a slow process.

Annabel Smith. The arkSo, where have we got to in this weird, idiosyncratic (read, minimally researched) ramble I’ve produced? I’d say “the issues” of our day are being covered by our fiction writers, but not always explicitly or politically. The thing is, political novels – or novels of ideas – are problematic. Sometimes the story and the characters become subservient to the politics, which can result in very dull reading. The challenge for fiction writers who do want to explore “issues that matter” is to find “palatable” ways of doing so. Some of those can be (appropriately) in-your-face, like Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Annabel Smith’s The ark or, even, Jeanine Leane’s more realistic Purple threads, while others are more subtle, preferring to let the reader identify the “issues” on the fly. My other conclusion is that short story writers, only a few of whom I included here, are worth checking out when looking for writing about “issues”.

I’d love to know whether you yearn for books that tackle the issues of our time and, if so, whether you’ve found much that meets your needs? 

(And of course I’d love Lisa to add her perspective, because I’ve made assumptions from her comments that may very well have departed from her intention or meaning – and I’d like this to be a conversation.)

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Books that matter

  1. As always you ask a thought-provoking question. I’m in agreement with Lisa about the importance of seeing critical issues reflected in literature. What are those issues – your list gives us a good starting point though I’m not seeing as much attention on climate change as say five years ago. Something that has emerged in recent years – and we saw this play out big time in the US elections and in the Brexit referendum is nationalism. Its been around for a long time of course but often as a way of reflecting a particular unique identity (eg the Basque’s in Spain) or pride but now I see it as a form of isolationism; of putting up the barriers and saying our country should be just for our own people and they should be the ones to get the jobs, schooling etc……I dont know of authors writing about this yet though – mabye its too soon??

    • Yes, good one Karen. Exploring that in a novelistic way would be a real challenge. It’s so abstract compared with the ones I mentioned where there are clear impacts. But it could certainly be done.

      Two that were commonly explored in the past were workers’ lives and poverty… Often framed within capitalism, and the impact of the Depression. As I was writing this, I was thinking that poverty is still around but seems less explored, perhaps because it seems more hidden.

      However, I think exploring relationships, emotions, not to mention values and ethics, more generally also matters. They are the stuff of our lives.

  2. Well done, Sue, that’s a good list, both issues and books that address them – and I’ve read almost every one of them so I’m aware of their existence.
    But they are like flakes of gold among the gravel if what I see from publicists is any indication. Books are My Favourite and Best have been talking about the recent preponderance of books about grief – yes, the stuff of our lives, of course, but I have had enough of reading about it for the time being…

    • Thanks muchly Lisa. Yes, I thought you’d read most of them. I agree there’s been several books about grief – some fiction (like Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The paper house), and many non-fiction (particularly in memoirs) – but I don’t feel I’ve read a surfeit. Maybe because I don’t read as much as you do I’ve managed to keep my reading more varied. Silver linings perhaps!!

      As for gold in the gravel, I think it’s probably a case of one person’s gold is another person’s gravel. Is it worse, from our “literary fiction” interest, now than it was, say 20 years ago? I’m not sure it is, but I haven’t sat back and analysed it.

  3. I just finished the End of Eddy and highly recommend it for gay issues within poverty though they went together re: attitudes they were also two separate issues. More on that when I review it. I like books that deal with issues but I need to break it up with lighter reading. Books on various issues as you mentioned are very negative and I get depressed when faced with a steady stream. I think balance is the way to go if one reads a lot of books. Reading fluffy novels written in the early to mid 1900’s helps as well as crime novels (not too gory). I like to rotate genres of books depending on mood and mental health strength of the day. Does that make sense? I have saved this post with my books I want to look for list. I am currently wanting to read more indigenous books but I must say my TBR pile in the front room of several hundred books must take centre stage.

    • Oh, I haven’t heard of that one Pam. Thanks. I’ll watch for your review.

      And yes, your comments make sense. For some reason, I don’t tend to rotate genres. Fluffy novels usually bore me – though it does depend I guess on what we mean by “fluffy”? I do understand the need to match reading to mental health though – and earnest “issues” novels can make for boring reading. I think the ones I mention here, while some are serious, don’t suffer from earnestness, so I hope some find their way into your reading diet. That said, I totally understand the TBR issue and not looking for other books to read!

  4. When I read a “serious” book I am looking first at the writing and at character development, and I only notice “issues” if they are ignored or glossed over (eg slavery on sugar plantations in JA). The Natural Way of Things and An Isolated Incident had agendas, but I probably needed other reviewers, initially at least, to point them out because they weren’t my first priority. I read a lot of SF, and am shocked by how prescient the dystopian ones are proving, but even there, I don’t think it is “issues” that attract me – I’ll have to think some more. (I read non-serious books for fun, and in them tolerate a fair bit of non-PC-ness).

    • Thanks Bill. I love your final comment about being more tolerant with non-serious books. I’m not sure I approve, let me say, but I understand it! Haha!

      As for “issues”, I’m with you. I also look for good writing and characterisation and can’t recollect ever caring about whether authors deal with “issues” or not. I never wondered about what JA didn’t do, because I loved what she did. And, a bit closer to home, I felt the same about Elizabeth Jolley. She almost never did “issues”. One book dealt with surrogacy I think, and she touched on same-sex relationships, but it never felt that the “issue” was what she was about. Her focus was more interior, I’d say. On the other hand, Thea Astley tended to be very issues based. I loved them both.

  5. It’s interesting for me as a migrant from Europe who’s now lived here for more than thirty years, that there are so few Australian writers who tackle political – rather than social – issues when compared to Europe where I read such authors from Germany, France, Italy and more all the time. One example, I guess, though in the crime genre which is not the kind of literary fiction I mean, is Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of “The Girl…” books, in which he strongly criticises the Swedish state, the secret service, former Nazis in positions of power and so on as well as the treatment of women. So I was pleasantly surprised by the length of your list, but also agree with Lisa that they are really only ‘flakes of gold among the gravel’ (what a beautiful phrase!!!). Apart from the indigenous authors you list, some of whom are very subtle in their depiction of political issues, the two Australian authors who are perhaps the strongest in political writing – in my opinion – are Christos Tsiolkas on class, the migrant and the homosexual experience and more so Rodney Hall whom I only recently discovered. His novel Love without Hope, for example, is a powerful allegory of wrongful detention of asylum seekers, written instead about a character wrongfully detained in a mental institution ( His earlier novel The Day We Had Hitler Home is on one level a historical novel, on another a coming-of-age novel, but when we read the protagonist’s experience in Munich shortly before Hitler came to power and the speeches he gave, it can be seen as a powerful warning of politicians such as Donald Trump ( Who else is going to delve into political issues if not writers?

    • Thanks Annette. I nearly added Tsiolkas into my list – but I decided to focus more on asylum-seekers and refugees rather than the wider migrant issue. I agree though that he is a good example of a writer who draws from “issues”. Thanks for the Rodney Hall recommendation. I’ve read a couple of his books – Just relations and The day we had Hitler home – and enjoyed them both but it was so long ago (the 1980s and 90s). I should read more of him. I don’t know Love without hope. Will check your posts.

      It will be interesting to see what writers do with Trump.

  6. Hi Sue, I like a good read, no matter what the topic or theme is about. I don’t yearn for books that are about “issues of our time”. I rather read about people and their relationships. I have read most of the books and authors listed in your message, and enjoyed them all. I think you can always pick up a novel about “issues of our time”. Tim Winton is one author who does it well in his novels. I just read the memoir, Dying by Cory Taylor. and thought it was excellent. And though it was about dying it was more about the importance of living.

    • I think I agree with Meg in that I think I prefer to read about people and their relationships in a less (inevitably?) journalistic way- but of course novels that are urgently “now” are always welcome.

      • Ah, Ian, like me too – if an “urgently now” novel comes along, one that’s “now” without being didactic, it can be exciting – but I’m perfectly happy too to read about people and relationships, because the permutations are endless. Never boring to me – unless the writing is bad or the characters cliched or dull.

    • Thanks Meg. That’s pretty much how I feel. I do like issues-based books, if they’re well done, but I don’t look for them. I just want to read good fictional writing – that’s it. I don’t really care what the subject matter is. I loved, though, that Lisa raised it because it’s interesting to tease out what we all like and think about our reading. There’s been such different responses in the comments on this post. I love it.

  7. Not much about climate change being written in the US unless it is science fiction. Also I’d like to see more about economics in some way and by that I mean it seems a lot of characters are either comfortably middle class and money is rarely an issue or horribly poor. There are never or rarely people in between.

    • Thanks Stefanie. Economic issues was another one I thought of including in my growing list of issues but decided I had enough for a post. You make a good point about books tending not to cover that “middle” ground. If authors want to explore the challenges of capitalism, they tend to have the really poor. If they want to cover other issues, they don’t want to have to worry about money!

  8. One of your comments mentioned the Stieg Larsson crime series, and crime or mystery novels often do tackle social and political issues in a direct way. (I know they’re not your favourite genre!) One thing I noticed about my sea-change mystery, ‘Through a Camel’s Eye’ – to me, domestic violence is at the centre of the book, but hardly anyone who has commented on it has referred to domestic or family violence as an important feature.

    And if I can include a plug for a novel that will shortly be released, Sara Dowse’s ‘As The Lonley Fly’ is an in-depth examination of the making of modern Israel.

    • Yes, good point Dorothy. They do. I tossed up discussing genre because crime and sci first in particular do often deal with big issues of the day, don’t they? And sorry about your book. It’s always tricky to decide what to focus on and what not.

      Thanks for the reference to Sara’s book. I thought about it as I was writing this post … It’s on the TBR, and will be read!

  9. No criticism meant. I thought your review of ‘Through a Camel’s Eye’ was terrific. Thank you. I just thought it was an interesting point. I’ve spoken to quite a few book groups about my novel now, and family violence as an ‘issue’ almost never comes up.

    • Thanks Dorothy – I guess we were all intrigued by other things in your book! It is interesting isn’t it – and it must be interesting (and I hope not discouraging) as an author to see what readers focus on.

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