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Monday musings on Australian literature: Expressing the zeitgeist

March 29, 2021

At the end of last week’s Monday Musings, I asked whether “saying something” was important to you, meaning, really, is it a top criterion when you choose what to read or when you talk about what you’ve read? For me, it is, as you can probably tell from the sorts of reviews I write. So, I’ve decided to explore it a little here, focussing on fiction (though “saying something” is, for me, important in literature, and the arts, more broadly.)

The question is, of course, what is this “something”? Now, what I write next is going to be pretty much off the top of my head, so apologies if it’s too obvious! Thinking about it, I feel I can break it down into three, sometimes overlapping, “somethings”.

There’s human nature, which, like Wikipedia, I’d define as the way humans think, feel and act. This is where Jane Austen, for example, comes in. She skewers our pretensions and failings – in all their forms – and shows our finer qualities, with such precision that she never goes out of date (even if some readers find her language hard-going).

Then there’s, for want of a better word, the human condition, which is hard to define, but Wikipedia helps by suggesting that it encompasses “all of the characteristics and key events that compose the essentials of human existence, including birth, growth, emotion, aspiration, conflict, and mortality”. This means the things that make up all our lives, no matter who we are or where we live – our lives, our nature, our society. Wikipedia goes on to say that ‘as a literary term, “the human condition” is typically used in the context of ambiguous subjects, such as the meaning of life or moral concerns’. It’s probably fair to say that any book that says something falls into this category!

These two “somethings” are the ones most likely to produce the classics because, by definition, their concerns are universal, transcending place and time. To become classics books need more, of course, including good or innovative writing, great characters, and, it must be said, luck.

Anyhow, finally, there’s the zeitgeist, which originally meant “the spirit of the age”, but which many of us use to mean the specific issues concerning the times we are currently living in (which can be a bit narrower that an “age”, however you define that).

These books, I’d say, are less likely to last, unless they also encompass those more universal concerns.

Today’s “zeitgeist”

Right now, the zeitgeist would include climate change, sexism (in its broadest meaning, and exemplified by movements like “me too”), racism (again in its broadest sense, and exemplified by the movement for reconciliation and truth-telling here in Australia, and more generally “black lives matter”), and minority (like refugee and migrant, LGBTQIA+, disability, aged) rights overall. Related to these, but broader, are globalisation, the failures of democracy and capitalism, and increasing inequality. Most of these issues aren’t new of course, but they have a certain flavour and power right now.

Are Australian novels covering these? And, if so, how? My feeling is that contemporary, historical and dystopian fiction would be the main areas to check, but, in the interests of not writing too long an essay, I’ve decided to look at the last five years of some of our major literary awards. Five years does not a “zeitgeist” make, really, but you know what I mean!

Book cover

The Miles Franklin Award is a good place to start. The last two winners, Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review) and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review), both deal with dispossession and its all-encompassing impact on Indigenous Australians, and so are definitely “zeitgeist” novels. Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review) also fits, with its broad-based satire of middle-class Australia’s pretensions and assumptions, particularly regarding multiculturalism and migrants. 2017’s winner, Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (Lisa’s review), starts with ageing, but encompasses a wide range of “extinctions” including, I understand, the Stolen Generations and genocide, so it fits too, as does the previous year’s winner, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review) which confronts, head on, the scapegoating of women for men’s sexual behaviour. These winners, then, pretty squarely reflect the “zeitgeist”.

Heather Rose, The museum of modern love

Probably the best known of the state-sponsored awards are the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, so I’m choosing the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction to represent them! 2020 and 2019 were won by the above-mentioned Tara June Winch’s The yield and Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come. Bram Presser’s The book of dirt (Lisa’s review) won in 2018. Essentially, it’s a Holocaust story, so where does it fit? Well, I think it fits into our “zeitgeist” group because not only does it deal with persecution of minorities, or, the “othering” of people, but it also reflects, I understand, our current understanding of intergenerational trauma and its longterm impact. 2017’s winner, Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love (my review) is different, its concerns being the exploration of art’s place in “the human condition”, and how they intersect. Finally, in 2016, the winner was Melinda Bobis’ Locust girl: A lovesong (Lisa’s review). It is an allegory, and Lisa writes:

Fearful containment of The Other distorts the lives of the rulers of the Five Kingdoms, even as it protects them from having to share what is left after the environment has been ruined.

Bobis is passionately committed to saying something in all her art. Fear of “Other” and a ruined environment ensure its inclusion in our “zeitgeist” group. Like the Miles Franklin, then, most of these books reflect the “zeitgeist”.

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things

What about the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction? It can behave a little differently from the other mainstream awards. 2020 and 2016 were won by the aforementioned Winch and Wood novels (with the latter being shared, but I’ll come to that.) 2019’s winner, however, is, perhaps an outlier. I haven’t read Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass (Brona’s review) but as far as I can gather it seems to be more about art and the “human condition” (loss and family relationships) than about specific issues of today. Gerald Murnane is often hard to categorise, but Lisa’s review of his 2018 winning Border districts tells me that at least some of its subject matter, clerical sexual abuse is a “zeitgeist” concern. Another hard to categorise book – and another I’ve yet to but am keen to read – is 2017’s winner, Ryan O’Neill’s satirical Their brilliant careers. Its scope is broad, including satirising writing, publishing and Australian literary culture in general, but along the way it also, apparently, addresses issues like racism and sexism. Finally, there’s Lisa Gorton’s The life of houses, 2016’s co-winner (Jonathan’s review). It too defies categorisation, at least from the reviews I’ve read, and is perhaps more universal family-and-relationships based. The PM’s Literary Awards have, I’d say, lived up to my sense of their taking more risks, being more prepared to buck, with the Fiction anyhow, the “zeitgeist”!

Finally

This survey is too brief, too simple and definitely too limited to draw any significant conclusions, but I’ve had some fun thinking about it and documenting some ideas. My tastes are catholic. I ask just two things – for the arts I “consume” to say something and for it to be done well, respectfully, engagingly, and, perhaps, provocatively.

Those of you who like your reading “to say something”, what sort/s of “somethings” do you like or, would you like?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2021 23:18

    Border Districts is a very good novel, and Extinctions a mediocre one. Unlike say The Natural Way of Things, neither says much about contemporary times (though Extinctions says a lot about our eager-to-please, contemporary MF judges). The question I have about the zeitgeist is why no leader, anywhere really, has risen to embody it.

    Perhaps because the zeitgeist after all is not the left’s grab-all of race and gender rights and a nod to the environment; but rather the nihilist anti-everythingism of the right.

    • March 30, 2021 00:05

      Falr point Bill, re the zeitgeist. I reckon it’s all those. The dreams and fights and, the opposite, the failures. Unfortunately, wth a party in power which really just doesn’t. get. it., it’s the failures that are winning.

  2. March 30, 2021 02:05

    I’d add that the something I want anything worth reading and writing about to say includes what might happen to the human condition and human nature in the future when some specific imagined thing takes place or is invented. That’s why I read and write about science fiction.

  3. March 30, 2021 05:43

    You are a deeply thoughtful person.

  4. Meg permalink
    March 30, 2021 10:32

    Hi Sue, I read books to understand people. That is why I like character driven stories, rather than plot driven ones. As you say the today’s zeitgeist topics haven’t really changed.
    The imperious manner of some, for me, are off putting. I just read Behold the Dreams by Imbola Mbue, about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream, which is relevant today. A very good read.

    • March 30, 2021 12:09

      That’s a lovely specific response Meg. I like your honing in on understanding people because I think that is it for those of us who don’t seek plots above other aspects, who don’t mind slow works?

      However not everyone says their “something” well as you say. Didacticism, condescension, being imperious (as you say) all get in the way and turn most of us off, don’t they?

      Mbue’s book sounds good. I hadn’t heard of it.

  5. March 30, 2021 13:12

    LOL Since I’m so hopeless at keeping up with zeigeists of any kind, I can’t possibly comment on this except to say thanks for the links:)

    • March 30, 2021 13:28

      The number of your links say otherwise Lisa 😉 But, a pleasure of course to link to your reviews.

  6. March 30, 2021 15:52

    The older I get, the more I prefer books that ‘say something’ (I think back to the ‘fluff’ I read in my twenties – it filled a need at the time but it was all very predictable and the same).

    What I want now are books that say something about topics I’m already deeply immersed in (as you may recall, I have a thing for grief memoir), and I think this is because I’m always impressed by a fresh perspective on a familiar topic.

    • March 30, 2021 18:42

      Yes, me too, Kate. It’s quite amazing how many different takes there can be on topics, so I’ll read more and more on topics that interest me too.

  7. March 31, 2021 22:22

    One of the reasons I’m a reader and choose certain books is to understand others – their human condition and human nature, if you like. But in doing so, I think a part of me is also seeking either affirmation or insight or a provocation into my own human nature and condition.

    • March 31, 2021 22:30

      Ah, that’s a good point Brona. I think that is part of it for me too. It’s not only that, but I do love it when I see such insight into myself, sometimes because it makes me feel “normal” and sometimes because it provides a lightbulb by explaining something about myself that hadn’t clicked before.

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