Monday musings on Australian literature: Short Australian nonfiction

There’s been a little discussion going on during this Novella November month concerning nonfiction novellas. I contend – yes, I’m putting myself out there – that a “novella” is fiction, and that you can no more have a nonfiction novella than, well, fly. However, I am not going to get into this debate now, because, fundamentally, it doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is that we read good writing, regardless of what it is, what we call it, or how we categorise it.

Instead, I’m going to do a quick post sharing some short Australian nonfiction. I have written Monday Musings posts about short books before – on little books and on small books. This post covers a bit of the same ground, but it also extends and so complements those two.

In some ways, nonfiction is ideal content for short or little books. Essays are a prime example. They can be commissioned and published in small form or can be extracted from previous publications (books, journals, websites) and published separately in short form. There are many examples of both, and some I have discussed before. Short Blacks, published by Black Inc, epitomises the latter, with some having originally been published in Black Inc’s journal, Quarterly Essays. And here I should say that the Quarterly Essays themselves are another example of short nonfiction, given each issue primarily comprises one essay of up to 25,000 words, plus correspondence relating to the previous essay.

However, Black Inc has also got into commissioning short nonfiction to publish in book form, with its recent Writers on Writers series. I have read two, and have more on my TBR. They are great reads for those of us interested in hearing what one writer has to say about another writer’s work. The next one I have up is Nam Le on David Malouf.

Dorothy Porter, On passion

Then there’s the On seriesLittle Books on Big Ideas. You can find them most easily at Booktopia online bookseller, because the publisher, Hachette, does not seem to list them separately as a series on their website, which is a shame. I have reviewed Dorothy Porter’s On passion and Stan Grant’s On identity. They were published by Melbourne University Press, but it seems that the series has been taken over by Hachette Australia. These are commissioned (I believe) essays by some of Australia’s best-known fiction and nonfiction writers on issues they wanted (or were happy to?) to explore.

All these little books make great reading, if you enjoy essays like I do. Most are under 100 pages.

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

But are there other examples of short nonfiction published in Australia? Any histories, or memoirs, for example? Finlay Lloyd‘s FL Smalls, which I’ve discussed before, is an example. as this series includes memoirs (like Philip Stamatellis’ Growing up café: A short memoir) and creative nonfiction (like Carmel Bird’s Fair game). Great reads, but they are still little books. What about books that are a bit bigger, but still short, books between 100 and 200 pages?

There are, apparently, some short memoirs, but I don’t know many. Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s Stella Prize winning The erratics (my review) is close, at 217 pages.

But, what I’m really wondering about are the books we are looking for that will increase our understanding of contemporary issues. Some of these could benefit by being short. Many of us want to read something a bit more longform about the issues important to us, but not that long! Tim Flannery’s The climate cure, which I mentioned in my Ask the expert post, is described as 224 pages, but the actual text ends at around page 190.

First Nations rights is another area where brevity might attract more readers. It’s hard to find, but My tidda, my sister, which was published in 2020, comes in under 200 pages. It shares the experiences of Indigenous women and girls, and was compiled by podcaster Marlee Silva. Readings Bookshop describes this book as “a celebration of the Indigenous female experience through truth-telling”.

Bruce Pasco, Dark emu

A slightly older book raising awareness about First Nations cultures, but now surely a “classic”, is Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book, Dark emu (my review). It’s around 175 pages.

On another subject, Annabel Crabb’s 2020 book, Men at work: Australia’s parenthood trap, is 160 pages. It apparently argues that true gender equity “cannot be achieved until men are as free to leave the workplace (when their lives demand it) as women are to enter it”. Hmmm … This is not the only thing needed, I’d say, but it is part of the picture.

Finally, I thought I’d share something pandemic-related. It comes from prolific, award-winning journalist-author, Gideon Haigh. He has tackled the impact of the pandemic on the workplace, in The momentous, uneventful day: A requiem for the office. Published in December 2020, it’s just 144 pages. Readings says “Enlivened by copious citations from literature, film, memoir, and corporate history, and interspersed with relevant images, The momentous, uneventful day is the ideal companion for a lively current debate about the post-pandemic office”. The pandemic is surely going spawn books for decades to come!

I have no idea whether this post will interest anyone, whether any of you care about the idea of short nonfiction, but I’ve enjoyed thinking about it. That said it’s been a challenge to research because, well, there is no equivalent word to fiction’s novella for short nonfiction!

Now, over to you. Do you like short nonfiction? Or is length irrelevant to you? Why or why not? And do you have any favourites?

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Short Australian nonfiction

  1. I don’t like to disagree for the sake of it, but I think it does matter when we acquiesce in the slippage of a word that has a precise meaning, so that it ends up not meaning anything at all. In this case, messing around with the meaning of novella ends up being a pretty useless term meaning just a piece of short writing. A novella is a short novel, it’s fiction, a product of imagination. Non-fiction, as you show in your examples, can be essays or monographs or whatever, and if we use those words we know where we are. We may entertain ourselves with postmodern forays into argy-bargy about what truth is, but we still know where we are.
    Just my two-cents worth…

    • And glad to hear it Lisa, because, really, I completely agree re novella. If we start calling short nonfiction novellas, what’s to stop us calling normal length nonfiction novels? Words, even those with precise meanings, can and do change over time, we can’t stop it, but I’ll not be changing this one. I was being a bit flippant and also wanted to hear what others thought. Your point about ”truth” is important.

  2. Hi Sue, I do like short fiction novels, but not in favour of short non fiction. Good fiction can be any length whereas non fiction needs facts and details, with both pros and cons on the subject matter. I like an open discussion, not just one person’s opinion. I read the newspapers, and supposedly some articles are non fiction. If I am interested enough in the topic I will read other articles, but I usually visit the library and look for books on the subject matter.

    • Thanks Meg. Good point re facts and details, pros and cons. I think, depending on the content, topic, this can be sometimes be done tightly. I agree though that articles are often just appetite-whetters.

  3. Oh, those First Knowledges look good! As does My Tidda, My Sister, which we can get here, although quite expensive.

    To be internally inconsistent, I totally agree that a novella is only fiction (not even a collection of short stories), however as you know I happily included a load of short non-fiction in the Novellas in November project, and that was because the organisers said we should include all books that were short, so I suspended disbelief for that month and got more books off my TBR!

    I do like short non-fiction if it fills in a gap in knowledge or gives deep coverage of something small, like the book on parakeets in London I read last month, or the Very Short Guides to … that I think Oxford do here.

    • Haha Liz … love your description that you “suspended disbelief” for the month because clearly it was in a cause I could support – decreasing that TBR.

      Yes, I was going to say that narrow subjects will lend themselves to short nonfiction. Of course, I was focusing in this post on Australian writing, but I have heard of those Very Short Guides. They are an excellent example and from what I’ve read, they serve their purpose and don’t suffer from being “very short”.

  4. I’m particular about the usage of literary terms, too, and have a sense, to further attest to my picky-ness that there are also distinctions between short novels and novellas as well as between long short stories and novellas…but I’m not bothered when others (like Rebecca and suspended-belief Liz) adopt other meanings as…organizational tools? if that’s a fair descriptor? If the terms were being used in a, oh-I-dunno, a course syllabus, or something, though? That might niggle me. Because I take the point that you and Lisa are making, about correct usage and contributing to a broader understanding of terms. So maybe it’s one of those cases, we’ve discussed before, where someone else might say I’m being wishy-washy, but I just see all the points-of-view! LOL I do enjoy the kinds of series you’re sharing though, the emphasis on short and pointed explorations/summaries.

    • Thanks Marcie … you pretty well mirror my feelings. I’m happy to accept it for things like this meme … “organisational tool” as you say … but it would niggle if it were used more formally. I call myself wish-washy but what I actually mean is that I tend to see and accept (largely) all points of view because who am I to say I’m right? All I can see is this is how I see it, and why.

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