Monday musings on Australian literature: Urban vs Suburban

Responding to my Monday Musings 10th anniversary post question regarding topics readers might like to see covered, Sue wrote that “there’s so much emphasis on regional writing which is wonderful – since I live outside the cities – but I think urban based fiction could be interesting”. 

Book coverI’ve been pondering this for a long time, in fact, but I’ve kept shying away from it because it’s such a big topic. There are so many questions to answer, before we even get started, beginning with what we mean by “urban”. Sue mentions Garner, Tennant, Park and Tsiolkas as examples of writers who could be considered. Now, Tennant’s Ride on stranger (1943) and Tell morning this (1967), Park’s The harp in the south (1948), and Garner’s Monkey grip (1977) are all clearly urban. That is, they are set in inner city areas. However, do we include suburb-set novels, like Tsiolkas’ The slap (2008) or, say, Patrick White’s The solid mandala (1968), in our definition of urban? Is there a difference, subtle or not so subtle, in the way novels set in inner city areas play out versus those set in the suburbs? I have a feeling there is.

However, Google wasn’t much help. I did find various bits and pieces, including reference to a “new” urban fiction or street lit genre which is, apparently, largely written by African-American writers, and, says the  Wikipedia article, is “as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”. This article, like others I saw about this “new” genre, is somewhat patchy but it does identify what seems integral to urban  literature as I see it, which is that it’s “usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse“Underside” here is the operative word, and refers, for me, to those “socio-economic realities”, Wikipedia mentions. Urban fiction tends (and I am generalising) to be about poverty and the various challenges and ills that occur in such an environment – marginalisation (of workers, women, migrants, and so on), crime, drugs, poor health, insecure accommodation, and so on – most of which stem from a sense of powerlessness. These are the sorts of issues variously confronted by Tennant, Park and Garner, and by other “urban” books I’ve reviewed here like William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (1892) and Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961). Many of these novels are – or owe much to – the social realist tradition. Christina Stead’s Seven poor men of Sydney (1934) also fits here.

If we look at urban-set historical fiction, this general trend seems to hold true. Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger town (2014), Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (2015), Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (2015), and Janet Lee’s The killing of Louisa (2018), for example, all tell of poor and/or marginalised people, from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

There are exceptions, however. Literature, after all, is not a binary affair. So, not all urban-set novels are about poverty and socio-economic challenges. Ada Cambridge’s novels like The three Miss Kings (1883) and A woman’s friendship (1889), Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1888), and Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (1936) are set amongst more comfortable and/or often more educated people. They tend to deal with more personal stories to do with family, marriage and self-determination, particularly for women.

Suburban fiction, on the other hand, is not necessarily cheerier, but the concerns can be different. Almost by definition, its focus tends to be the middle class, and it can be more existential because these characters are not struggling for material survival. So, for example, it can be about alienation and spiritual emptiness. Patrick White is a good example, with The solid mandala being a favourite of mine. Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower is a psychologically dark novel about young girls left to fend for themselves, so has a nod to the realist urban novels, but the crisis these young women face is of another ilk altogether.

Christos Tsiolkas, The slapAnother common topic in suburban novels is family – often family dysfunction. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), set in Perth’s suburbs, is probably the Australian suburban novel of the last few decades, though its protagonists are “battlers” rather than the middle class, and the story is told against the backdrop of history over a few decades. Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap also fits into these family-focused books, but again it’s overlaid with contemporary issues like class, sexuality, and ethnicity.

Steven Carroll’s six Glenroy novels (2001-2019), which I haven’t read, is a series set in Melbourne suburbia. Fairfax literary editor Jason Steger says that these

books have ensured that suburban life has been beautifully chronicled in Carroll’s distinctive style and is ensured a place in Australian literary heritage.

Steger reports that Carroll had read little fiction set in Australian suburbia, besides George Johnston’s My brother Jack (1964). Carroll sees suburban fiction this way

… taking the suburbs, the evolution of the suburb, and ordinary people living in that suburb and looking at the evolution of that place and the people simultaneously and acquiring a panoramic view of the whole thing over a series of novels.

He doesn’t say, though, what that “panoramic” view might be – and therefore how these books might fit into my discussion here!

Anyhow, moving on, the preoccupations and self-absorption of middle class suburbanites is ripe for satire – of which Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (2015) is a perfect example.

Coming-of-age novels are often set – not surprisingly – in the suburbs, like Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (2009), Sonya Hartnett’s Golden boys (2014), and Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (2018).

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerThen, there are the outliers. Where to put Elizabeth Jolley’s novels, many of which are set in  suburbs? Many of her characters are alienated or anxious, so perhaps they are a development of the Patrick White tradition? Amy Witting, Marion Halligan and Jessica Anderson have also set novels in cities and suburbs, some with a wry edge, and many dealing with the challenges women face in navigating contemporary life. And then there’s Sara Dowse’s West block – about to be reissued – which is probably unique here, with its life-within-the-bureaucracy context.

When the fiction – urban or suburban – is set affects the subject matter. Late nineteenth to early twentieth century novels, for example, started to discuss the role and rights of women, aligning with the suffrage and nascent feminist movements. In novels set since World War II, we start to see migration coming to the fore. Madeleine St John’s The women in black (1993) covers both women’s movement issues, and the positive impact of European migration on Australia, in the 1950s. Later novels though deal with some of the uglier aspects of migration – with discrimination and persecution – such as AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (2015).

Tony Birch, Ghost riverWe are also seeing some urban-suburban set Indigenous novels, like Tony Birch’s Ghost river (2015). These tend to be politically-charged, reminiscent in intent if not necessarily in style, of those earlier twentieth century realist novels.

I have made some wild generalisations here, and my coverage of Aussie lit is superficial, but I hope I’ve stimulated some discussion. I also hope Sue is happy with my attempt to meet her request!

(Links on titles are to my reviews. I haven’t linked other blog reviews, because there are too many, but you know where to look!)

30 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Urban vs Suburban

  1. Oh yes, a big, big topic!
    I think you’re right that there’s an association between urban and the underside, tackling poverty and the other issues you mention, sometimes descending into grunge (which I don’t like). But also, looking at the novel settings that I’ve classified as ‘urban milieu including large regional cities’, there are also examples of satirical novels about wealth and ethics, such as Black Rabbit by Angus Gaunt, Elliot Perlman’s Maybe the Horse Will Talk which tackles #MeToo, and also ‘political novels’ like Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company set in WW2, which features characters from different positions on the political spectrum, ranging from stolid conservatives to Communists and liberal intellectuals.
    When I think of suburban novels, Sally Hepworth comes to mind. She lives in Beaumaris, and she sets her stories there, writing issues-based novels as Jodi Piccoult does. I think I would also include Andrea Goldsmith, though she uses her suburban people to explore intellectual and philosophical issues. Both of these writers use settings in what used to be the ‘suburban wasteland’ but is now the middle ring, with a thriving culture distinct from both the inner suburbs and the outer. I can’t think of anything set 40km from the CBD in outer suburbs that have merged country towns into the metropolis, except for Martin Boyd who set some of his novels party in Berwick, I think, when it was a country town back in the 1920s.

    • Oh thank s for all this Lisa, and for adding some more examples and angles. I did think of Andrea Goldsmith in mind when I was pondering this post, but I didn’t write her down in my list. Perlman’s Three dollars is a good one too, I now remember, not that I listed every urban/suburban novel I’ve read of course!

      I decided not to get into the large regional cities, like Halligan and others on Newcastle for example , but they could be fun to explore.

      • Impossible to cover it all.
        #Musing Somebody is bound to be doing a PhD on this…
        One other thing comes to mind… I can’t remember where I heard this but the urban novel is sometimes deliberately non-specific in its settings to make it more marketable internationally. You know the type of thing, the domestic novel, purged of any Australianisms, set in an apartment that could be anywhere…

        • That’s interesting,Lisa, I hadn’t heard that. However I did feel that some urban/suburban novels, like some of Jolley’s I think, aren’t very specific, maybe because place isn’t significant?

        • That’s funny you should ay that, because as soon as you mention Jolley I think of those isolated houses out among the paddocks of WA, or the inner urban terraces where the ‘newspaper’ of Claremont St was. I have a strong sense of place with her novels, but without re-reading them, I can’t really say whether it’s my imagination at work or her words…

        • No… And some are set in England too. She creates atmosphere about place I think but not necessarily a sense of specific place? I don’t even really think of WA in her work, sat The well, like I do Winton or Scott or others.

        • Yes, I agree, her English ones are definitely English, like My father’s moon and An innocent gentleman, but the Australian ones ones do not feel to me anywhere specific in Australia though I know she livex in Perth and had a farm outside it.

  2. Hi Sue, I agree with Lisa impossible to cover all. Everywhere I look on my bookshelves I do see quite a few suburban/urban novels. I saw Eyrie and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, both set around Perth. Also, the White Thorn Tree (2 volumes) by Frank Dalby Davison, set around Sydney. .And one for Melbourne, Addition by Toni Jordan.

    • Thanks Meg, I had the Davison book on my list and also considered Jordan’s contemporary novels,but I couldn’t include them all. I must read The white thorntree as it sounds really interesting.

  3. Great topic! It made me get up and have a look at my own bookshelves (although I read so many library books that the effort wasn’t helpful!) Having grown up, and lived most of my adult life, in outer suburbs, I resent the snobbishness of the inner-city set about those areas. I would love to see more stories set in the outer burbs – to get some fresh insights into the Oz psyche. I think genre and commercial fiction probably goes there more often (like Liane Moriarty, perhaps, or crime novels?)

  4. I’m not sure I agree that the novels you name at the beginning are “clearly urban”. Ruth Park’s Surrey Hills for instance is clearly suburban – a residential suburb, albeit one quite close to the CBD. Later, The White Thorntree (I and II) is mentioned, this might well be the first Australian book to analyse suburban living rather than just have the story set there, though Eleanor Dark’s Waterway is at least part suburban analysis. The descriptor urban brings to mind William Gibson’s early cyber-punk works but I’m struggling to think of an Australian example, there seem to be no more on my shelves than there are on Muchrlle’s.- how about Come in Spinner, and I vaguely remember doing a review which included a map of inner Sydney, got it, David Ireland’s City of Women, definitely urban.

    • I wondered if anyone would discuss the definition issue Bill. For me Surrey Hills is inner city which I classify as urban versus. But I can accept that it’s a grey area.

      I must read Davison’s book. And I didn’t know Eleanor Dark’s at all. Come in spinner is probably another good one. And, I must read Ireland!!!

  5. I’m so glad you ran with this topic Sue, it’s fascinating isn’t it. Philip Salmon’s book Waiting immediately came to mind, being about two “misfits” living in a boarding house in inner Melbourne. Now I’m going to have to take a look at my bookshelves!

    • Thanks Sue. I haven’t read Waiting.

      Yes, it is an interesting topic, and one I might return to because in many ways it’s far bigger and I think more complex than our rural/outback fiction. Watch this space but don’t hold your breath!!

      Let me know what you find on your bookshelves.

  6. Yes, at some point in the US, “Urban Fiction” became a trade term for novels by and about African-Americans. I don’t suppose that all bookstores have a section for that, but then there are few big bookstores left in this area.

    It is curious that urban fiction should carry a suggestion of the gritty. Henry James and Edith Wharton set novels and novellas in very posh neighborhoods of Manhattan. Dawn Powell’s novels have a more bohemian set of characters, but hardly anyone really down and out. Yet of course there are many novels set in Manhattan among the poor: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain come to mind.

    The generation of American novelists who came along after WW II wrote a lot of suburban fiction–not a surprise, given how the suburbs expanded. John Cheever and John Updike come to mind.

    • That’s really interesting George about the “gritty” issue. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Australian urban fiction (particularly that written in, and even those just set in, the first half of the twentieth century.) I think most of our “posh people” fiction of that era is about the squattocracy out in the big farms and stations. Inner Sydney (the city I know best outside my own but it’s a planned city so different) didn’t really have posh neighbourhoods though there are some in the inner ‘burbs.

      I was rather astonished I must say to find that the descriptor “urban fiction” – which is so broad really – seems to have been co-opted for such a relatively recent and narrow “genre” of writing. I wonder if it will last.

  7. Michelle de kretser’s Questions of Travel, from memory was at least partly set in inner-city suburban Sydney; Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black – a department story is very urban – and Malouf’s 12 Edmonstone Street is about his house in suburban Brisbane, and Johnno about growing up in suburban Brisbane but also covers the inner city.

    Unfortunately I’m unwell today and not able to participate in the discussion as much as I would like – but I would have expected more young Australian writers to have focused on the inner suburban cities and yet I am not coming up with many ideas. I’d love to know if people here can come up with some more!

    • Yes, I thought about Johnno. (I think 12 Edmonstone St is memoir? Not fiction?)

      I don’t think younger writers are, overall, focusing more on inner urban areas from my research either. But I’m going to look at this whole urban issue a bit more.

      I hope you aren’t too unwell and then you feel better soon.

  8. Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm was set in upper class suburban Sydney I think – I’m going from memory here, it’s a long time since I read it.

  9. Also White’s The Hanging Garden I’m sure was in inner-Sydney suburbia.
    Who apart from Salom is a contemporary writer setting their novels in the Australian cities? I’ve been Googling around for ideas and new Australian books seem to be focusing on the regions.

    • AS Patric, whom I mentioned is, Sue. And Stephen Carroll with his Genroy series. Many new historical fictions, like those I mentioned are too plus others like Enza Gandolfo’s The bridge, but they are not contemporary novels. Also, writers like Andrea Goldsmith sets her novels in Melbourne I think.

  10. Apologies Sue, you do mention Women in Black. I haven’t read the Glenroy books I must look them up.
    I do like these exercises where we get to see what books people can suggest and then we can take a look at whatever trends are apparent. Presently I don’t think I see any books that fit out of Darwin, Hobart or Adelaide? Are contemporary Australian writers more focused on rural Australia (do they sell better, being pragmatic)?

    • No need to apologise Sue. It’s easily done, particularly if you are under the weather.

      Your are right about those three cities, though my reading group’s October (I think) book is set in Adelaide, Anna Goldsowrthy’s Melting moments. Also, an older book, Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus is too. Not easy to find though.

      • I don’t know either of those two Sue – but i did get a couple of Steven Carroll’s reserved at the library today – always happy to find another author to read!

        • Anna Goldsworthy’s is a debut novel, but she wrote a well-received memoir a few years ago, Piano Lessons. Actually her father’s novel Three dog night, which I read long ago, is set in Adelaide.

          But I recommend you check out Barbara Hanrahan’s book – she was a well-respected artist as much as a writer. This novel is autobiographical, and is beautiful.

  11. Definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ aside, I do enjoy novels with these sorts of settings because I identify with them – apart from stories set in my home ‘town’ (Melbourne), I admire writers like Sonya Hartnett for making every story feel like it’s taking place where you grew up (this could also be because we are a similar age, and the things she uses to give a sense of time are meaningful to me).

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