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.
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.
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.