Monday musings on Australian literature: Defining the novel, in 1975?

During one of my forays into Trove, I came across an intriguing little piece by Canberra artist-educator-reviewer, Malcolm Pettigrove. Pettigrove was a regular arts reviewer in The Canberra Times through the 1970s and 1980s, but it was his article published on 31 January 1975 that particularly caught my attention.

It starts:

NO issue in the issue-filled business of literary appreciation has had as much wind and ink spent on it as The Definition of The Novel. Ironically, few issues are of less importance.

I like this, because I think definitions are fun, but ultimately unimportant. Actually, fun is not quite the right word. What I mean is that discussing definitions is a worthwhile exercise because it helps hone our ideas about form and can inform our understanding of creative works, but in the end, the important thing is the work, regardless of what category/form/type critics or reviewers slot it into.

So, with that understanding, let’s look at what Malcom Pettigrove had to say – in his review of three Australian historical fiction novels, Nancy Cato’s Brown sugar; Maslyn Williams’ Florence Copley of Romney, and Thea Astley’s A kindness cup.

He starts, in fact, by saying a bit more about the novel:

Whatever theorists might make of it, the word “novel” remains in reality nothing more than a convenient label for those fictional works of narrative, descriptive, expository, dramatic, or didactic prose which no other label will fit. […] No more comprehesive [sic] definition has ever been coined, and it’s quite likely that none ever will.

Now, I’m not going to engage much more with this. Wikipedia’s writers simply describe the novel as “a relatively long work of narrative fiction, typically written in prose and published as a book”. I could check my various books, but I think I’ll find variations on this theme, so let’s move on. Pettigrove says that this says nothing about a “lack of imagination on the part of the definition-makers”. Rather, “it indicates that the novel has a life and a mind of its own and is determined not to surrender to the definition-makers until it has exhausted all the variations of form, content and style that are available to it”.

The Australian novel, he says, is no different. He writes:

Most novels, whether Australian or not, are conservative, courteous, sociable things, with established habits, moderate expectations, and only a limited inclination to experiment. The bold innovation, being rarely understood and seldom well received, is left to the adventurous minority, some of whom die in the attempt leaving the successful ones to proliferate their own image in more or less conservative, courteous and sociable offspring which are established in their habits, and given to moderating our expectations by being limited in their inclination to experiment further.

I do like this description of how innovation leads to the next “standard” – until, of course, the next innovation comes along. It happens in all the arts, doesn’t it? Of the three novels he’s reviewing, you won’t be surprised to hear that he says that Cato’s and Williams’ novels belong to the majority, while Astley’s is an “offspring of the minority”.

He then discusses the three novels. Nancy Cato has appeared in this blog a few times. Her historical fiction, Brown sugar, is a “novel” he says, and also “a foreshortened saga”, a “history of the rise and fall of the north-coast sugar empires”, and “a romantic tale”. He sees limitations in this novel, particularly in terms of depth of characterisation. The extent of her historical research is evident, he says, but “in the hands of a Martin Boyd this material would undoubtedly have given rise to characterisations of considerable depth and subtle complexity.”

Maslyn Williams’ novel, Florence Copley of Romney, he says, shares with Brown sugar, its “contrast of values”. Overall, though, this story is “pleasantly romantic” rather than offering something interesting and challenging about the Australia in which it is set.

Book cover

Then, he comes to Thea Astley’s A kindness cup (for which there are reviews by Lisa, Bill and Lou on Lisa’s Thea Astley page). Astley is described on the book’s fly-leaf, Pettigrove says, as “a prose stylist”. It’s clear he’s not a fan – or not entirely a fan – of Astley’s “prose-style”, for which he gives examples, but he writes that:

If this brief and bitter tale succeeds — and I believe it will — it will be in spite of its prose-styling, not because of it. When Miss Astley drops the prose of the stylist and begins to function simply as a writer with a tale to tell her work becomes stark, tense, and most effectively dramatic.

Astley’s writing, he says, would intrigue “the reader who enjoys examining the intricate and often unfathomable relationships between a human action, its setting and its motive”. She evokes her cane-country town setting “with potent economy” and the motives of its characters “are exposed with the precision of surgery”. Indeed, he says,

The total impact of the book is considerably greater than its brevity might suggest possible.

All three books, he concludes, discuss the nature of man in their own way – though their understanding “is wonderfully simplified when the men depicted inhabit the philosophical no man’s land that nineteenth-century rural Australia has become in the minds of so many contemporary novelists”. “Philosophical no man’s land”? A discussion for another day, perhaps?

As for defining the novel? He suggests these novels provide no answers … just, the implication is, more questions. In fact, his piece peters out in terms of its opening salvo, but I did enjoy his perspective on these three writers.

Thoughts, anyone?

23 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Defining the novel, in 1975?

  1. Interesting, WG! I think P. rather likes the shy he sets up according to his own desires/definition/s – which he can then let fly at and hopefully knock from its perch. I don’t know exactly what he says about those novels he is reviewing but again if you have selected generally – then it appears he has nothing to say about the narratives at all. I have only read the Astley novel but too long ago for me to retain more than the barest of outlines but I’m sure it was far more vivid than Pettigrove appears to permit. I much prefer the definition of the novel from Wikipedia’s writers! His mention of Martin Boyd however almost inclines me to like him however – to forgive him his assumptions about the novel (?) – The Cardboard Crown a favourite!

    • Thanks Jim. He says a little about the narratives but doesn’t really further extend discussing how they might affect the definition. He implies Astley is an offspring of the minority but doesn’t, when he talks about her, refer back to that. He implies her writing is more powerful but not how it impact the defnition. There Astley novels that do clearly test the definition so maybe he saw intimations of that.

  2. There’s this funny episode of an adult cartoon called Jojack Horseman in which a director is going to make a huge, blockbuster film. As the ideas pile on the shape of the movie changes, becoming an interactive social media experience, among other things. As the ideas get weirder and things devolve, eventually the movie turns into “a bimonthly curated box of snacks.” It’s a silly idea, but the point is that when people try to get too innovative, the thing they’re making becomes unrecognizable. So, in some ways, I can see how a label might help people, but on the other hand, if it doesn’t have a narrative, how in the world can it be a novel?

    Well….then you get the character-drive novels that don’t have much of a story, and you get the experimental novels that are more about an idea than a story. But for the most part, I think we’re all safe with our idea of “a novel.”

  3. I suppose The Novel has at least an implied meaning – more than 150 pages of fiction. But the whole point about Art is to subvert any definitions.
    But unlike painting, writers (and film makers) are held to a relatively conservative definition by the desire to make sales.
    Perhaps that’s why Gerald Murnane doesn’t win prizes – judges have a secret definition of Novel which includes narrative structure.

    • Ha ha, Bill, I like your last point. You also have a good point, I think, about novel and fm versus pantry and other visual arts. The market certainly does tend to drive them more. I can think of so many books over the years where the main concern has been “is it a novel?” In addition to the ideas Melanie and you have offered – ie having less story and more focus on character or ideas – there’s also the memoir-in-disguise (or “just writing their diary”) complaint made about writers like Helen Garner.

  4. I remember Pettigrove coming to speak to our English class and how motivating it was to speak to a real-live person who had words I’d read in the paper. He was very impassioned and talked about the malleable nature of writing, and how most terms we use in publishing are more about marketing than the craft itself. It was like I felt my head explode with possibility. Back then I was keen to become a journalist, but its funny how those word still stay with me even now. It burned hope in this young writer’s heart.

    • Oh Casey, this is so lovely to hear. I loved the cheekiness of his writing in this review. It’s great to hear that he comes across well as a person. Great point about “marketing’. Harks back to Bill’s comment here.

  5. To grab the idea of the adventurous minority – Mr Books has a theory about many teen/YA writers and their ability to throw caution to the wind, trying new styles, mixing up genres and text types. Because they are writing to a younger audience they will experiment, not caring about what is usual or expected. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s exciting watching them try!

    • That’s an interesting theory Brona. I haven’t read enough YA books to comment really, but the little I have read or read about makes me think he has a point. And the corollary is that the publishers are prepared to take more of a risk with this experimentation because they believe the readers will give it a go. Interesting.

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