Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella judges on the zeitgeist in Australian fiction

Last week I reported on the longlist for this year’s Stella Prize, and shared an excerpt from the judge’s comments. For today’s Monday Musings, I’m reiterating most of that – for us to think about and discuss:

Reading for the Stella Prize … [is] a sample of the zeitgeist, a look at what is informing our thinking right now …

It feels like a big year for fiction, and our longlist reflects this. … Family relations and the persistence of the past in the present continue to inspire writers, and several books were concerned with the aftermath of trauma, especially sexual violence. Realism continues to dominate Australian fiction, with a few standout departures into other modes.

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.

I’m not aiming here to get into a beat-up about their choices – because we all know that judging in the arts is such a subjective thing – but they did raise the issue, so I thought we could have a little think …

Starting with what they say is dominating contemporary fiction:

  • family relations
  • impact (“persistence”) of the past in the present
  • aftermath of trauma (particularly sexual violence)
  • realism

And then, looking at what they felt they didn’t see much of, which was “otherness and diversity”. They defined this as narratives that:

  • are not based in Australia
  • come from and feature women of colour, LGBTQIA people, Indigenous people (and, presumably, other “differences”, such as people with “disabilities”)
  • are subversive
  • are different

There are a several ways we can look at this. Firstly, do we agree with their assessment of Australian fiction, specifically, of course, that written by women – recognising that they are talking about trends, not exceptions as there will always be those. My sense is that they are right. Certainly, several books in their longlist are about family relationships – particularly fathers and daughters/parents and children – and about how the past continues to impact present behaviours and lives.

Secondly, if we agree with the judges’ assessment, does it matter? I’d say it does, because it suggests that we are not being introduced to the breadth and depth of Australian experience but to a subset of it.

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Lotus IslandThirdly, if we agree it does matter, why is it so? Is it because this is what publishers think readers want to read? It’s interesting, for example, that the most subversive books in the longlist are probably the two from the small independent publisher, Brow Books (Lau’s Purple mountain on Locust Island, and Tumarkin’s Axiomatic), and that the indigenous work in the list (Lucashenkos’ Too much lip) is published by UQP, a university press which has a history of supporting indigenous writing.

Anyhow, what I’m going to do is share here some books written by women and published last year that I think offer “otherness and diversity”, not, as I said, to say that I think these should have been shortlisted – because I haven’t read all the books the judges did, and I don’t know which ones were submitted anyhow – but just to offer some ideas and to have you offer some back!

  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (Text) (my review), which could be seen to largely fit the zeitgeist/trends the judges identified – family relations, the impact of the past on the present – but it is also about “otherness”, in that the main character is an older woman who has been diagnosed with dementia.
  • Krissy Kneen’s Wintering (Text), which I haven’t read but Kneen does tend to be subversive. Is this book so – or is it simply a variation on Tasmanian Gothic?
  • Margaret Merrilees’ story about lesbians, Big rough stones (Wakefield Press) (my review)
  • Angela Meyer’s dystopian-tending-realism-departing story, A superior spectre (Ventura Press) (my review).

This isn’t what you’d call a lot! I did find a few more by men, but. We see stories all the time about “other” experiences, about the many challenges we are facing as a society – on the news, for a start. Where are they in our fiction?

Now, over to you – and if you’re not Australian, I would of course love to hear what you have to say about “otherness and diversity” in your neck of the woods.

(PS This may not publish, as scheduled, on Monday night AEDST as we are out in the wilds of NE Victoria where internet connection is flakey.)

30 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella judges on the zeitgeist in Australian fiction

  1. I am no expert on British publishing but I suspect that while there is a lot of lip service paid to diversity and otherness most novels are written by and for the affluent white middle class. We live in a painfully polarised society where a politically driven austerity has caused a great deal of misery and alienation and its difficult to feel that print culture is able to respond fully.

    • Yes, I think that’s the main issue Ian … that it’s probably much harder for non-middle-class white people to get published. Not that it’s wonderfully easy for them either, but I suspect it’s even harder for others, if only because they don’t have the opportunities to start with – as women didn’t in the past.

      • I agree very much with Lisa Hill. I was thinking about your recent post about Howards End and about the state of fiction in the Edwardian era and wondered if the literary ecology of that era was actually healthier than ours in terms of diversity (maybe not so much Otherness). Working class (Lawrence and Wells), provincial (Bennett), feminist or proto feminist (Woolf, Dorothy Richardson) and exploring colonialism (Conrad, Kipling) writers and writing all amongst the most prominent and successful fiction of the time. Perhaps that’s just literary nostalgia speaking!

        • Thanks Ian. I love that you thought again about my Howard’s End post! Interesting points re the diverse ecology of the era … Lawrence did come from a working class background, and Woolf was a feminist. When you think about that era most of the books were about contemporary lives I think, whereas for some time now there seems to be a much bigger interest in the past and its impact on us now.

          It may be literary nostalgia of course… Someone has weeded out the also-rans from those eras, leaving us the cream to which we now turn lovingly, approvingly … hmmm…although we are now discovering that some cream, such as provocative women writers, was also weeded out!

          Regardless, those judges’ comments have certainly got us all thinking, which is never a bad thing!

  2. Interesting to read about their perception of the books put forth in your neck of the woods. There was talk, a few years ago, about a women’s fiction prize in Canada, but it hasn’t transpired. In the meantime, I always enjoy hearing about the Stella Prize. Even though I do an awful job of following up with the list (initially because it’s hard to source them but, then, I simply read other things, after the older nominees do become more available). I know this is something which deserves to be its own project but…

  3. Thanks for posting about the judges’ comments – and I agree with the above comment it’s very difficult to cut through to publishers with books written from all sections of society and am relieved Indigenous writing is being given *finally* more airspace. My bookclub loved US writer Amy Bloom’s White Houses because it’s beautifully written, is about older women in a passionate witty long relationship (Eleanor Roosevelt – no less – and ‘Hick’ who was from a very impoverished background). I long for more of this kind of writing in Australia. Very hard to get it published.

    • Thanks Emma … it has certainly been lovely to see quite a turn around in publishing of indigenous authors. I’m sure there’s more that could be done in this area, but given what was available a decade ago, it’s been a positive shift.

      I’ve heard of Amy Bloom, but haven’t read her. White houses sounds interesting. I must ask my Californian friend if she knows of it or has read it. I don’t recollect her mentioning it.

      I guess you would know more than most of us here how hard it is to get words published!

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  5. I’m currently reading Trigger Warnings. Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right by Jeff Sparrow, and so I’m finding the judges’ comments very interesting indeed. Because, if we look at what the judges did *not* say, they didn’t call for writing about the one really big issue that really matters – which is rising inequality and poverty, here, right here in Australia, never mind the world.

    Where’s the story of the woman and her children sleeping in her car after divorce?
    Where’s the story set in a high-rise housing commission flat?
    Where’s the story of loneliness in a dying rural town?

    In a very brief segment on Wentworth, we saw the struggle of a woman newly released from prison, with no money, no job and no friends.
    Think Ruth Park, Kylie Tennant and Eve Langley. Their only living contemporaries that I can think of off-hand, are Paddy O’Reilly (The Fine Colour of Rust), Jennifer Mills (Gone) and Wendy Scarfe (Hunger Town, though that was set during the Depression).
    It’s been a very long time since Eliot Perlman’s Three Dollars…

    (And lest you think I have forgotten the other really big issue of climate change that the judges also didn’t mention, my point is that people in the invisible underclass need food, shelter and hope if they are to help in the fight against it.)

    • Thanks Lisa … poverty, inequality, refugees/asylum seekers, climate change were the things I was referring to when I wrote “the many challenges we are facing as a society”. (Poverty and inequality in particular, came to my mind so I’m glad you’ve raised it.) However, I cut the judges a bit of slack and think that they intended most if not all of these when they talked about “otherness and diversity”, and that the issues they named (indigenous, LGBTQIA, etc were examples rather than ALL that they meant?) But, I could be wrong.

      One of the reasons Laguna’s The choke resonated so strongly with me was because it’s about poverty and disadvantage and how hard it is to get out of the cycle. I haven’t read The eye of the sheep, but my understanding is that like The choke it’s about how people are falling by the wayside and our inability to stop the cycle?

      I like your examples of Park and Tennant. Another contemporary book – but historically set (like Scarfe’s book) – that has stuck with me is Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden. Her exploration of the forced removal of underprivileged people from their homes for the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

      Interestingly, it seems that it’s in memoirs that we are seeing more stories of “others” (including disadvantage, asylum seekers, etc) but memoirs are usually also success stories, whereas fiction can shine a light on how we are failing?

      • I’m not sure exactly what those judges really meant, except that the words sound discontented!
        But if you follow the offerings at the Wheeler Centre and Writers Vic, there’s a very strong focus on the ‘identity issues’ you’ve raised plus also disability, race, feminism etc. I might be maligning them because I don’t always check their calendar thoroughly but they don’t seem to be interested in class disadvantage.
        Thinking of Park, Tennant and Langley – they lived and worked among disadvantaged people and their stories were authentic. I wonder how many writers working today could say the same?
        Enza Gandolfo could, and I should have mentioned her before, because her novel The Bridge is about working people…

        • Yes, I wondered about Gandolfo’s book – I’d like to read that. Thanks for confirming that emphasis. It sounds like this is an area she’s actively interested in.

          Of course, I’m not sure exactly what the judges meant either – they certainly sounded a bit disappointed, at least, in the lack of variety.

          Identity issues are big now, I agree, but there’s a reason for that that I understand. LGBTQIA people, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and so on etc have had a rough trot for a long time. I don’t really begrudge them their swaying the balance a bit more their way for a while?

          As for Park, Tennant, Langley, they each had different stories as I recollect. Park was born into the working class, and I think she and Niland lived poor in Sydney because they were struggling writers. She drew on that experience beautifully as you say. Langley’s mother was disinherited when she married, and the family lived poor, so Langley also experienced levels of disadvantage growing up, but not by choice? She went on to have a pretty sad life that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Tennant, though, came from a more secure background, I think, and chose to learn about lives she didn’t know? Are you saying that more writers should do what she did? Or that we are not giving opportunities to those who start off less advantaged and could write those stories if given the chance?

          I’d certainly like to see more examination of some of the issues we’ve talked about, but on the other hand I don’t like to tell writers what they should write about. I’m more comfortable asking publishers to look out for more diverse stories! In other words writers can really only write what they feel inspired to write – but publishers can decide how much risk they are willing (or able) to take on less popular topics and styles. Does that make sense?

  6. It was only a short while ago we were talking about the predominance of speculative and dystopian elements in recent Australian women’s literature – Charlotte Woods, Jane Rawson, Storyland and so on and on. And Indigenous Lit is booming, particularly for women – Alexis Wright, Marie Munkara, Anita Heiss, Ellen van Neerven. The judges are making a trend out of one year’s reading. Unlike Lisa, I didn’t think about what they didn’t say, but yes it is time to revive Depression-Lit.

    • Yay for depression-lit 😀

      I agree though Bill – I had noticed the trend / favouring of speculative literature, mostly because it’s not my cup-of-tea. Equally, while this year’s Stella longlist may include stories about family relationships, many of them are framed within an unsolved mystery or unexplained disappearance or unanswered questions. These sorts of ‘soft mysteries’ aren’t really my thing either but the family element usually keeps me reading.

      • Thanks Kate … yes, that “soft” mystery bit is often part of those books which the judges described as the persistence of the past in the presence, I think. There does seem to be a lot of books like that at present.

    • Fair point Bill about a trend from one year …

      Indigenous lit is on the up I agree, but I could only find one literary fiction work (Lucashenko’s) published by an indigenous woman last year, so I’m not sure I’d call it booming?

      • Yes, I think you are probably right: I struggled to find new titles for ILW last year, and all but Lucashenko’s were by men (Living in Hope by Frank Byrne, Balga Boy Jackson by Mudrooroo, Dancing Home by Paul Collis). There was also Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, but that was edited by Anita Heiss, not eligible because the stories were written by multiple men and women.

        • Oh I’m glad Lisa that I didn’t miss anything obvious in the women’s front. I found a few men, as you’ve identified. And as you say, Growing up Aboriginal (which my reading group is doing next – hooray) isn’t eligible for most prizes which are about authors, rather than editors, as you say.

  7. I’ve found the discussion around the judges comments interesting and thank you for this thought-provoking post, Sue.

    I guess the first thing that springs to my mind is that once judges start making comments about what they’re seeing / not seeing, an unofficial longlist/ shortlist checklist develops – a book about mental health; a book from a POC; a book about trauma; something historical… etc etc To me, that seems like dangerous territory for judging panels, no matter if it is largely an unconscious process. (If you were a publisher, wouldn’t you be offering up books that fit the bill?)

    When it started, the Prize had to ‘explain’ why fiction and non-fiction were judged against each other and from memory, the response was something like ‘good writing is good writing’. Shouldn’t that hold, regardless of what the topic is? Good writing about family relationships/ other countries/ trauma etc etc? I think your second and third points get to the heart of that – are we seeing the breadth of ‘good writing’? My guess is probably not and I imagine the reason is $$. Sad but true.

    In regards to the judges comments about dominating themes this year – so what, judges? Aren’t there only seven stories anyway?! These themes keep coming up because they are important and meaningful to people – good writing is good writing.

    • Interesting point Kate re the potential for a checklist to develop. I guess that’s a danger but I don’t suspect these judges have that much power?

      And yes, I think in the end it is about “good” writing, which is why, I presume, they seem to have ended up with a few family, past-into-present stories. It’s interesting isn’t it, that Jamie Marina Lau’s book is different, sounds subversive, but it seems people are finding it hard to read? I feel I should read it but my time is so pressured to read the books I have on hand!

      As for the 7 stories – could the judges argue back that yes, there are only seven stories but they’d like to see them in some different settings and permutations of people/characters? Good writing IS good writing, but does everyone want to read about middle-class white people’s family angsts?? (Is this what they are saying most of the stories are about? I don’t know because I haven’t read them.)

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  9. Following on from above…
    I agree: writers must write from the heart… but I think we might need to investigate structural reasons why writing isn’t more socially diverse. On my blog we’ve had a discussion about the growing trend for writers to write their novels within a university course of one sort or another, and maybe that contributes to working within a restricted milieu and meet only people very similar to themselves?

    • Yes,that’s exactly what I was meaning Lisa… The structural reasons, which includes publishers and readers. University courses could be a contributing factor too. It would be interesting to analyse those books. I know nothing about what they are taught, but it makes sense that those attending the courses might come from a similar demographic given the costs and the opportunity involved. In the end the power is in the readers hands, in a way!?

  10. Yes, it’s readers who decide, though I’m not going to buy into the idea of publishers as gatekeepers. People who say that have no idea of the diversity of Australian publishers and what they’re looking for, and how many there are that are even non-profit.
    If you look at the success of Jon McGregor who wrote Even the Dogs about the underclass in Britain, people will read any story that’s well told.

    • Ah, no I wouldn’t call them gatekeepers either, Lisa, but they are part of the picture…like you, I appreciate the wonderful work many of our publishers are doing. Many give me a lovely warm glow when their names pop up.

      I don’t think we can single out any one cause – publishers, university courses, readers, writers themselves – for a lack of diversity, if indeed we agree there is lack of diversity… Maybe it’s more that there are trends but the diversity is still there?

      • Well, I think there’s a particular kind of diversity that’s being sought. For example, Rodney Hall’s A Stolen Season is a sensitive, intelligent novel about a veteran with appalling injuries and the tragic impact this has on his relationships from both his PoV and his wife’s. But I can’t see it pleasing disability advocates agitating against ‘ableism’ in literature…

        • Yes, when I was thinking about diversity and disability, A stolen season was the first book I thought of. Such an excellent book, about challenging ideas and lives. But why don’t you think it would please disability activists? I haven’t really come across these activists – re literature, anyhow. At the AWW Challenge we have someone writing about diversity, but she focuses more on the diversity that is written rather than what is not.

          You may be right about a particular kind of diversity, but I’m inclined to think that they were giving examples rather than a defined list. As you’ve probably worked out by now, I’m a benefit-of-the-doubt person given half the chance!!

        • Because (from what I’ve read), what’s wanted is stories of disabled people living a normal life, as of course many of them do. Like that old TV show Ironsides, where the lawyer just happened to be a in wheelchair but it was not a barrier to a full life.

        • Ah, thanks very much Lisa. I understand what you’re getting at now – how obtuse of me. We all want that too I’d say – but we want and need both sorts of representation, don’t we.

          For example, taking the indigenous issue, we need stories “about” life as an indigenous person, about the challenges indigenous people face, to help us non-indigenous people understand some of their issues and feelings. I’ve learnt so much from this sort of writing. BUT we also need stories where indigenous people are “just” another character. I noticed in the new tv drama series, The cry, that one of the police officers is played by an indigenous character. There’s been (so far) no reference to that fact – she’s “just” another police officer. I’ve read a couple of novels recently where it is casually mentioned that a character is indigenous but their indigeneity is not essential to the narrative. We want all these stories too. Oh, it’s so complex.

          (PS I remember Ironside! Showing our age, now!)

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