Monday musings on Australian literature: Road novels

Having just returned from the madness of LA’s freeways to the calm of Canberra’s roads, I found myself thinking about road novels! Road movies are often talked about, but not so much road fiction, particularly in Australia – so today I’m going to have a go.

Defining the term

I’ve labelled this post “road novels” rather than “road literature” or “road narratives” because I want to focus on fiction rather than on travel, and other non-fiction, in which “road” stories abound.

But, how to define the “road novel”? I turned to Google of course, and found some discussion of a “road genre”.

WorldCat provides a basic, brief definition, noting the “picaresque” as a related genre:

Used for works in which a journey, as a life-changing experience, is a central part of the action.

Blackwell Reference, a subscription site, is more expansive (but I would have had to subscribe to get their full discussion):

The road novel is the automotive version of the journey narrative, borrowing elements from its two major variants: the romance or noble quest and the picaresque with its chance encounters and roguish characters. American automobilists recall pioneer figures like Leatherstocking and Huck Finn who seek to escape civilization by “lighting out for the Territory”; they also follow in the footsteps of the peripatetic speaker in Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” who finds freedom, companionship, and insight on the highway. Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air ( 1919 ), the first road novel, draws on these traditions in establishing the defining theme of the genre: the technologized escape from the constraints of civilization to the freedom of the open road. This flight is also the central paradox of the genre since drivers, in their dependence on automotive technology, bring with them the civilization they flee. The road novel became a popular genre in the 1950s, when growing affluence made it possible for the majority of Americans to own automobiles and President Eisenhower backed the largest freewaybuilding project in history. The most famous example is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which adapts Huck’s “lighting out” to the Beat philosophy of “dropping out.” Kerouac’s journey inspired road trips by a number of literary dropouts, including Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson …

British author and journalist, Tim Lott, wrote in The Guardian:

No, it needn’t involve a road, but probably will. Yes, it is pretty much an American form. Yes, it is essentially 20th-century, with exceptions. And yes, it does have to be a novel (which disqualifies The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). By this definition, a road novel would still include, say, The Grapes of Wrath, which nevertheless somehow doesn’t quite fit – mainly because it is a novel about desperation and escape rather than exploration and adventure, which to my mind are the quintessence of the road novel.

Three definitions, but they differ in emphasis. WorldCat focuses on the idea of “journey” and “personal growth”, whilst Blackwell and Tim Lott focus more on “adventure” and “freedom”. I wonder if this difference relates to their different cultural frameworks, that is, WorldCat is probably providing a more international definition whilst Blackwell and Tim Lott see the genre as primarily an American one and define it in terms of the “big” American examples, On the road, Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, et al. Blackwell adds the “car” as a critical component, which would exclude books like Cormac McCarthy’s The road. (But then, they and Lott would probably exclude it anyhow, given it’s about “survival” rather than “adventure” and “freedom”)

So, what about Australia? Do we have road novels, and if so, do they meet these definitions or do we have our own version (or variation)?

The Australian road novel?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airI’d say we do have road novels. Here are some suggestions (in chronological order):

  • Eve Langley’s The pea pickers, 1942 (my review), about two sisters seeking agricultural work in Victoria’s Gippsland and other rural areas
  • D’Arcy Niland’s The shiralee, 1955, about a father tramping the country roads of NSW with his daughter, his swag/shiralee/burden, working itinerantly
  • Ruth Park’s Swords and crowns and rings, 1977 (my review), in which a step-father and son seek work in country NSW during the Depression
  • Tim Winton’s Dirt music, 2001, in which a man travels to NW Australia to escape a confrontation (and find his own peace)
  • Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air, 2006 (my review), about a young indigenous woman seeking her heritage

Some of these books are primarily about “the road” while in others, particularly Swords and crowns and rings, and Dirt music, the road forms one part of a bigger story. Looking at them in terms of our definitions, we could say that:

  • None are primarily about “adventure” and “freedom”, though there is an element of these in The pea pickers – and they can be natural by-products of being “on the road”.
  • Two have a strong “quest” element, particularly The pea pickers (with the girls seeking a spiritual connection with, or at least an understanding of, their mother’s home land) and Swallow the air with the protagonist seeking to understand her heritage and therefore he identity.
  • Most are about survival – either physical or spiritual or both.
  • Two – The pea pickers and Swallow the air – have autobiographical elements, which is a feature of the classic American road novels.
  • None are specifically “automotive” journeys, though the car is used as a form of transport in some.

So, I’d say, from this small sample, that Australian road novels:

  • meet the broad WorldCat definition because, whether or not “life-changing” is the goal of the journey, that does tend to be the outcome; and
  • are not universally characterised by the “freedom” and “adventure” goal that is seen to be critical to the American road novel.

There is more that could be teased out – including the possibility of gender differences. For example, the two novels that I suggest have autobiographical and stronger quest elements are the two by women authors. Too small a sample I know, but it’s an idea to explore.

I’d love to know whether you like road novels, what you think characterises or defines them. Or, do you think it is a specifically American genre, and that the books I’ve listed are not road novels?

[Please excuse the lazy dot-pointing in this post.]

44 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Road novels

  1. I’m torn about ‘road’ novels. There have been a few titles lately that sound really cliched, but I’m not opposed to the idea in general. I just approach w/suspicion.

  2. Interesting post and collection of books, I think it’s certainly a category that can embrace different genres, such as coming of age, inner transformation or even looking into the threads of the lives of others as Olivia Lang does in her Trip to Echo Spring (not fiction though).

    I’m not familiar with any of the Australian novels you depict, though I have Dirt Music somewhere on the shelf, but I think the country really lends itself to the genre/category.

    • Good point Claire re the country lending itself to the category. One of our quintessential “road” stories here has to be Robyn Davison’s Tracks… But it’s non fiction, and involves camels and dirt tracks rather than the American road. But it is about self, and adventure, and freedom too I’d say.

      • Yes I wanted to mention that one I read it about 20 years ago when I first landed in the UK, my Aunt handed it to me saying here read this, I think the term should probably be overland stories, not restricted to the mode of travel or the type of track.

        • Yes, good point about terminology Claire. I guess what we are seeing is that the “narrow” definition of “road” story is probably, as Blackwell and Lott say, largely American.

  3. Id never have thought there was a genre of this kind but it does make sense looking at those definitions. Im hard pressed to think of other examples though. I wonder if they are more common in countries with large open spaces – harder to escape from the constraints of civilisation in a lot of european countries where land space is at a premium.

    • Yes Karen, I wondered that too. I was trying to think as I wrote it of a British example. Yours would probably be the non-fiction adventurers, the sailors for example! The highways of the sea? But I didn’t want to go down the pure non-fiction path as that’s another whole can of worms.

      • Sea adventure could well be an equivalent. I’m musing here but maybe the idea of people going overseas to one of the colonies is another way of looking at this

        • Yes, I think it could be. We are expanding the definition now aren’t we to focus more on goal or outcome than on mode, but then “road” doesn’t just mean something for cars. In fact I think it comes from Old English word meaning riding, or even “hostile incursion” (says a dictionary) and then Middle English meaning journey.

  4. Karenlee Thompson’s 8 States of Catastrophe is a road novel, summarised in my review like this:
    “It traces the picaresque adventures of MV (Mozart Vincent), a motorcycle-riding psychic poet, and his sidecar companion, a black Labrador named Rider, as they travel around Australia. That psychic talent isn’t one MV really wants: he wants to put distance between himself and those he thinks he’s failed to warn”. See

  5. I like road movies and I’ve seen a couple of good Australian ones (which I can picture but not name). No books sprang to mind as I was reading your post, but The Pea Pickers is inspired! So I might I also suggest Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. Also and more conventionally Eleanor Dark’s The Road to Coolami. Can’t think of any truck ones.

    • Oh yes, Rabbit Proof Fence is good too, Bill, though it’s non-fiction isn’t it, and I wanted to steer clear of those for my list. I haven’t read the Eleanor Dark – should really, though!

    • Yes, Tracks was one of the first I thought of too Bill – and mentioned it in my response to Claire above. But again it’s non-fiction. I found non-fiction examples much easier to find and didn’t want them to swamp the fiction, but I’m glad to have them mentioned in the comments. (Emma Ayre’s Cadence – not set in Australia of course – is another one).

  6. I love road novels, both fiction and non fiction. I like unusual ways of travel around the world. I think they exist in many western countries. Have not read any translated ones. The craziest combo of fiction and non fiction was John Water’s book Carsick. Ddivided into thirds. Hitchhiking across USA. First part= everything that could go right with trip, 2nd part, everything that could possibly go wrong, last third, what actually happens. Crazy funny book but extremely rude.

    • Yes, I like them too Pam. Carsick sounds fascinating. An American book I really enjoyed – though I have never quite finished it because life got in the way at the time, is William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. Funnily, on our last day in LA last week we went to a Barnes & Noble Starbucks, and they had three or four enlarged book covers on the wall, one being Blue Highways. I was pretty surprised. Another was Hemingway (not so surprising!)

    • Yes, spot on, that’s what happened, I read the post this morning and I’ve come back from checking out new cars with my brain addled.
      Do you know that new cars don’t have CD players in them????

    • Ah, that’s an interesting one – a different type of road trip but valid I reckon. I won’t laugh. I never did manage to read it but remember, of course, when it came out.

  7. But It’s surprising, isn’t it, that there aren’t more that spring to mind? Why aren’t all those grey nomads and backpackers writing a Great Australian Road Trip novel, eh?

    • I hadn’t thought about the Australian Road Novel- how interesting to read that it does not seem to have the associations of freedom and self discovery that US examples have. I wonder if the US is unique in that association. I remember reading a Penguin version of a Spanish Picaresque of the 16th century Lazarillo de Tormes. A brilliant book where the hero learns self discovery of a sort but it has very little to do with freedom/autonomy. I must read my copy of Dirt Music!

      • Thanks Ian for taking up that point. I think it is interesting and possibly does speak to what is fundamentally different about American culture, because even the others people have suggested here aren’t in that vein. Dirt Music isn’t my favourite Winton, but it’s worth reading I think.

  8. There’s a new novel out this year (which I haven’t read) called Down the Hume – if it’s not a road novel it sounds like it should be!

    • It sure does sound like it, Michelle, doesn’t it, but I have a feeling it may not be. I briefly though of An isolated incident – but while there are truckies in it, and a journalist who comes to and from Sydney a couple of times, the actual story is about one place.

  9. Hi Sue, I like road novels but did find it difficult to think of Australian Road novels. At first, I could only think of the Shiralee and Rabbit Proof Fence. However, when I was the at the op shop today I sold Voss by Patrick White, and thought it might meet the criteria of a book on the Australian road. And though set on a train, what about Everyman’s Rules Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany.

    • Thanks Meg. I had Voss on my list too, in fact, but decided just to do 5 and that it was a bit more out there. However, I’m happy to see it this way. I hadn’t thought though of that Tiffany which I love. It’s a bit left field but why not?

  10. I think road novels began as an American thing but there is no reason other countries can’t have them too! I like road movies and the occasional road novel. Even though it began with cars, I don’t think it has to be limited to them and can even include bicycles! I have not read it yet but my husband loved The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty about a grief-stricken overweight middle-aged chain smoking man who takes off on a bicycle across the country.

    • Yes, I agree, particularly as I’d prefer to define them more in terms of “journey”, but one you actually take as well as the spiritual and psychological one, rather than specifically automotive.

      The memoir Cadence, which I’ve written about is about a bicycle journey. I suspect you commented at the time, but I’m sure you’d like it. Not in Mr lay heretofore because it’s not a novel.

      • I remember you writing a bout Cadence. It sounds like a great book but has not been published in the US 😦 I am currently reading a book called A Hole in the Wind written by a climate scientist who rides his bike across the US taking about climate change.

  11. Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’ (1987) which combines fact and fiction could be a considered a candidate as an Australian road trip tale.

  12. ‘Road novel’ sounds fantastic. Thank you for this post, Sue. I read Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘Me and Kaminski’. Some of the pivotal conversations took place when the men were on the road, driving toward exhuming the past which would unearth the future. I liked how they were constantly moving and the landscapes kept changing, reflecting their moods.

    • Wow, Deepika, that sounds like an interesting book. “Driving toward exhuming the past” to “unearth the future”. And, I do like the idea of landscapes changing with their moods. Sounds beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s