Monday musings on Australian literature: Community novels

Recently, I came across a blogger discussing what she described as “community novels”. The blogger is Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home, and the book she was discussing was an English novel, Small miracles by Anne Booth. It got me thinking, because I love community.

Community, however, is a word with multiple meanings and applications, but Liz’s concept of “community novel” is one which has “a range of other characters, each with their own story that intertwines with the whole”. These characters, if I understand Liz’s blog correctly, can belong to communities that can range from those as “compressed” as a nunnery to those more open like a seaside town. The point is that the characters are all connected by their community, and the novel incorporates the stories of several members of that community.

Of course, I searched the internet for community novels, and found our own Annette Marfording (who has appeared on my blog). Back in 2016 she discussed the topic on her blog in a post titled 10 Great Novels on Community. Annette writes:

Using a community in fiction has several advantages: a community almost invariably provides a hotbed of conflict between its members, and it is conflict that drives a story. Communities also provide the opportunity for the author to begin the story with a new person joining the community, which can serve as the springboard or inciting incident for the story. Furthermore, community allows authors to display their skill at conveying a strong sense of the place where the writing is set. 

So, a significant feature for her are the dramatic opportunities offered by having a new person join a community. To this I would add the opportunities offered by someone returning to a community, which seems a common trope these days. Anyhow, Marfording goes on to list ten “great” Australian community-based novels – at the time of writing – noting that they tend to be set in “small rural or coastal towns, but it would, of course, also be possible, albeit more difficult, to build such communities in a city suburb”. (Check her post for her thoughtful list.)

Both Liz and Annette point to the factors that make “community novels” interesting. The small community, for one, which means readers can quickly come to know and feel engaged with it. The opportunity for conflict and difference – and hopefully resolution at the end – is another. In my internet search I found reference to a book published in 2014 by J. Hillis Miller. Titled Communities in fiction, its subject is described on Amazon as

the question of how communities or noncommunities are represented in fictional works. Such fictional communities help the reader understand real communities, including those in which the reader lives. As against the presumption that the trajectory in literature from Victorian to modern to postmodern is the story of a gradual loss of belief in the possibility of community, this book demonstrates that communities have always been presented in fiction as precarious and fractured.

I’ll leave the trajectory issue to the academics, but I’d be interested in your perspective on whether communities in fiction are always presented as “precarious and fractured”. For me, it depends on the definition of “precarious and fractured”. If “precarious” means “likely to fall or collapse” (Oxford Languages), I’d argue that many fictional communities might be fractured, that is, “damaged” or “broken”, but are not necessarily going to succumb. Take a recent American case, for example, Where the crawdads sing (my review). That community was never going to fall or disappear, but it sure was fractured.

I also found another interesting article* on JSTOR, from 1988, which I scanned. It’s about a genre the writer, Sandra Zagarell, calls “narrative of community”, which she describes as “committed to rendering the local life of a community to readers who lived in a world the authors thought fragmented, rationalised, individualised”. Zagarell and others argue that these novels see community as important to survival in an increasingly individualistic – or, some say – capitalistic world. Zagarell comments at the end of her article on the progress of this genre into modern times, writing that

Embracing increasingly heterogeneous visions of the collective life, narrative of community is expanding the story of human connection and continuity.

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip

Notably, she sees this happening particularly in the writing of African-American authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Interesting. We can surely see some of this in First Nations Australian literature. In Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review) Kerrie returns to her community because her grandfather is dying but she decides to stay to fight for Granny Ava’s island. This is, in fact, a precarious community. It’s respected leader, Uncle Richard, says near the end that

We had to grow hard just to survive … But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer.

This is a community learning how to live in modern rural Australia. It’s a similar story in Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) which is also about a community being torn apart, and about the resilience of a culture that is, philosophically, community-based.

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughter

Besides these and other First Nations novels, I’ve read other several community-set novels in recent years, such as Malcom Knox’s coastal Bluebird (my review) and Karen Viggers’ rural The orchardist’s daughter (my review). Both are set in vividly delineated communities and explore the tensions, prejudices, greed and/or corruption that can tear communities apart, while paradoxically also conveying the potential in community for the opposite.

I opened this post by saying I love community, which means I also love novels set in communities, so my question of course is …

Do you like “community novels” and if so, what do you like about them and would you like to share some favourites?

* Sandra A. Zagarell, “Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre” in Signs, 13 (3) Spring, 1988: 498-527

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Community novels

  1. Most of my favorite contemporary community novels (as I understand the term) are linked short story collections. This form often seem to ‘be right’ for the ‘community novel’, I reckon. Think classics like Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. I would say Olive Kitteridge and Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven – a couple of modern examples – would also qualify.

  2. I cautiously submit (a bit like “boldly going”) Barry Unsworth’s Songs of the Kings as a kind of transient community’s story.
    It’s one of my all-time favourite books.

  3. Oh what a good question… racking my brain for community novels I might have read. I did enjoy the way Melissa Lucaschenko rendered hers in Too Much Lip… felt like I was very immersed in Kerrie’s world and all the big personalities who populated it.

  4. Great post! Maybe a strange answer, but one of my favourite community novels is The Queen and I by Sue Townsend – a comic novel about a republican party winning the election and the royal family having to move to a council estate. It’s a bit dated now in some ways but I like novels that I feel accurately capture the good and bad about living on a council estate, and I feel like this one was most accurate to my experiences growing up (though the sequel was terrible!).

  5. An author (female) whom we have discussed in the past writes rural community novels with a lightly farcical slant. Sadly I don’t have Lisa’s diligence and inventiveness in tagging, so I can’t find my review(s).

    Tim Winton too, often puts a lot of detail into his south west WA coastal communities.

    • Thanks Bill. I did think about Tim Winton. The turning for example I think is set in coastal communities – but is it just one – and Dirt music is certainly set in one.

      Haha re Lisa and her tagging. They are impressive. Sometimes I think about upping mine but which ones do I want? I’m trying to think who this female might be? My mind is blank – slightly farcical?

      • I have wasted a whole afternoon off reading my own Journal posts – the kids were reading excerpts out to each other last night, so I assume they enjoy being written about – to finally get to Rosalie Ham, The Year of the Farmer (2018).

  6. If someone says community novel, my first thought is a book that takes place in a neighborhood or a cul-de-sac. Basically, it’s houses that are close enough to each other that everyone knows everyone else. As a result, you get these short stories that are linked by the place. If you’re wondering what the neighbor is up to in one story, you may find out what his issues are, or if he’s hiding something, in a story shortly thereafter. I love that element of the collection that is linked because it taps into our desire for more information, or maybe our penchant for gossip.

    • Ha ha, Melanie – I love that element of linked collections too. Our desire to know more – spot on – and probably our penchant for gossip. I am happy to define community more broadly than the small town. We could have the “community novel genre” and sub-genres – the cul-de-sac novel, the small town novel, the retirement community novel, and so on. The possibilities are endless, aren’t they, and all appeal to me.

      • I guess I’ve always lived in areas where the populations shifts and changes frequently (my hometown had a state university and a huge casino, and now in Indiana we have many colleges) and that makes it challenging for me to think about what a community looks like.

        • Ah yes, university towns (as against big cities with universities in them). l often think they must be the perfect place – small but more intellectually and culturally diverse communities. But, I hadn’t really thought of the transience aspect.

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