Ryan O’Neill, An Australian short story (#Review)

If you haven’t heard of this story by Ryan O’Neill, you are in for a surprise. It was first published in The Lifted Brow, an online literary magazine, in 2012. Its title tells you nothing, but, before I tell you more, I should introduce Ryan O’Neill for those who haven’t heard of him.

I had heard of O’Neill, but I hadn’t read him, which was one reason I chose this story to read. He came to my notice when his tricksy novel, Their brilliant careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers, appeared on the scene in 2016. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award that same year. As publisher Black Inc writes on its website, it’s “a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers”. You can see what I mean about tricksy.

Well, hold that thought, because his earlier-written short story, “An Australian short story” is tricksy in a different way. Instead of inventing sixteen Australian authors, this story is entirely composed of lines from short stories and poems by Australian writers, written between 1850 to 2011. The source works are an eclectic bunch, and include writers as diverse as Henry Lawson and Angelo Loukakis, as Rosa Praed and Thea Astley, and so on. You get the gist.

There are 149 of them, every one footnoted so you know exactly where they have come from. Some are as short as one word, such as “Goodbye” (from JMS Foster’s “I do love to be beside the seaside”), “–What?” (from Kate Grenville’s “Having a wonderful time”) and “Yes”, at least twice (from H. Drake-Brockman’s “The price” and Morris Lurie’s “Running nicely”, for example). You gotta laugh!

Others, though, are longer, like “And she lay beside him, separated by knowledge which he did not share, of something sinister; of wounding, of unhappiness, and of pain” (from “Winter Nelis” by Elizabeth Jolley).

There is a plot, and it concerns a couple, an unnamed husband and wife living in “a plain weatherboard house” (which comes from Peter Carey’s “American dreams”) whose “solidity was late-nineteenth century, as the town’s was” (from Hal Porter’s “Gretel”). So, we are in a country town, not a city. And then, a few sentences on, we discover that our couple are on “a farm, if such it could be called”. He, 42-years-old, is a writer, and is uncertain about whether he is “happy with her”, as in fact is she likewise re him.

The story reads seamlessly, albeit with a strange other-worldly feeling, but this comes not so much from the method of construction as from the fact that the people and places aren’t named. It’s also quite a melancholic piece, which speaks, I think, to the Australian short story tradition that it draws from and pays homage to. It is clearly Australian, O’Neill has called his story “Australian” and makes it very clear with references early on to parrots, gums and she-oaks. But, it is not a traditional farm story, because our husband is a writer, so this Australian story is about a writer, one struggling with his novel and frustrated at a perceived lack of support from “her”, while she feels she’s given him enough. It’s inspired and adds a wonderful layer to what O’Neill is doing here.

Now, I was intrigued about this story, so I went searching, and found a piece by O’Neill on writing this story. He explains how he, a Scottish-born Australian, came to write the story. He discusses his extensive reading of Australian short stories, and his thoughts about the strong realist tradition that runs through them. He sees (saw then) experimentation not being a strong feature of Australian short story writing, but does identify pockets of such occurring. It’s a great article for anyone interested in Australian short stories.

I was particularly interested in his statement at the end of the piece about his intention:

I had originally intended for this piece to be a satire. “An Australian short story” was titled “The Australian short story” for a long time, to suggest the idea that this piece, with its bush setting, and sentimental love story, was somehow representative of a certain uniformity in Australia short fiction. But as I finished the story I was surprised and pleased to see it had developed into more of a celebration than a satire.

I like this because as I was thinking about the story, I wanted to call it a satire or spoof, but it felt too subtle for that. “Celebration”, plus, we could say, commentary on, is a good way to view his story.

Coinciding with the publication of Their brilliant careers, its publisher Black Inc posted on its website, O’Neill’s Five tips for writing a short story. Tip no. 2 is that he believes

it is impossible to write a decent short story unless you have read a lot of great short stories. Try to read as many short stories as you can, and not only from contemporary writers. Read Poe, Maupassant, James, Chekhov, Carver, Mansfield, Borges, Woolf, Kipling, Barth, Salter, O’Connor (Frank and Flannery), Salinger, Yates, Jolley and Greene. These men and women are the greatest teachers a short story writer can have. You’ll learn all you need to know about structure, characterisation, setting, plot and everything else, and you’ll also have a great time. With any luck, something of their stories will stay with you when you write your own.

You certainly couldn’t argue that he doesn’t practise what he preaches, could you!

Ryan O’Neill
“An Australian short story”
in The best of The Lifted Brow. Volume 2 (ed. Alexander Bennetts)
Brow Books, 2017
ISBN: 9780994606877

24 thoughts on “Ryan O’Neill, An Australian short story (#Review)

  1. I’m a huge fan of Ryan O’Neill’s work. His short story collection, ‘The Weight of a Human Heart’, is exquisite, while ‘The Drover’s Wives’ is hilarious. Highly recommended.

  2. I have a link to the Lifted Brow on my sidebar but I don’t often go there. I don’t often go anywhere except the news. I also don’t, as you know, go to short stories more often than I can help, but I can see why you might need to read a lot of them in order to write a good one, although perhaps not as literally as O’Neill has done here. I do think though that Australian short story writers are ‘trapped’ by Henry Lawson’s brilliance at the form. City writers are still struggling to escape from Lawson’s (or Lawsons’, given his mother’s influence) bush settings.

    • I rarely go anywhere too Bill. Frustrating but there’s only so much time.

      The thing is I enjoy bush settings … but I also enjoy city settings. It’s the characters, ideas and writing that matter. I think they are escaping the stereotypical bush character by now. I think he mentions one of my favourites., Marjorie Barnard, as escaping for example.

    • Bill, I remember that you don’t read short stories, but it surprises me because at least in the U.S. the heyday of science fiction was all short stories that came out in magazines. I have an anthology of sci-fi and fantasy from those magazines.

      • I have lots of SF anthologies and quite a few of the old pulp magazines with their serials and short stories. The ‘pulp’ writers would pump out whatever their editors wanted or could be persuaded to take. I got into SF through John Wyndham’s novels and then through serials in magazines (in the Student Union library at uni). I read short stories. I read cereal packets. But if I invest in a universe then I want it to go on for more than just a few pages.

        • You have to invest in the universe to understand the story. Maybe I’m a cheapskate, but once I’ve made that investment I want the story to be a long one (and a good one – very disappointed in Spaceborn Few, Melanie).

        • Now, here I wonder whether, if it takes so much effort to Invest, it’s good writing. Seriously, though, I get your point, but I also don’t think all sci-fi has to have complicated universes that demand so much of the reader? Or, maybe you are just saying, if you like the universe, you want to stay there which is essentially your argument against all short stories really, isn’t it?

        • Ooh, that’s a good point. In the sci-fi/fantasy anthology I referenced, it’s almost ALL short stories except Princess of Mars. When my professor assigned that piece, I assumed it was a short story, just like all our other assignments. Cut to me reading frantically late into the night trying to complete a novel before class.

      • Good point Melanie… I was interested in how even now over here, sci fi short stories seem alive and well. At least, in our original AWW challenge, there seemed to be a lot of them in anthologies being read by our participants.

        • We have a yearly sci-fi/fantasy best of anthology that comes out every year in the U.S. It’s a good way to check out a variety of authors without committing to a whole novel, which I like because some sci-fi/fantasy novels throw me off pretty early on and I don’t want to continue.

        • I love the idea of these annuals. We have some here in different forms and genres – maybe in Sci-fi but I don’t know. I’d love to read the general short story and essay ones but, time.

  3. Sue, I’m blanking on whether it was your or Bill’s blogs where we all were recently discussing what Australian lit looks like, and how there are so many cities, which most of us non-Australians would think about given all the bush stories we’re exposed to. I love that this Australian author knew that bush stories prevailed and went to poke at them.

  4. I love this Sue! I read his 99 versions of the Drover’s Wife a few years back with great delight. And I love his list of great short story writers – more for my wish list 🙂

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