Monday musings on Australian literature: Urban vs Suburban

Responding to my Monday Musings 10th anniversary post question regarding topics readers might like to see covered, Sue wrote that “there’s so much emphasis on regional writing which is wonderful – since I live outside the cities – but I think urban based fiction could be interesting”. 

Book coverI’ve been pondering this for a long time, in fact, but I’ve kept shying away from it because it’s such a big topic. There are so many questions to answer, before we even get started, beginning with what we mean by “urban”. Sue mentions Garner, Tennant, Park and Tsiolkas as examples of writers who could be considered. Now, Tennant’s Ride on stranger (1943) and Tell morning this (1967), Park’s The harp in the south (1948), and Garner’s Monkey grip (1977) are all clearly urban. That is, they are set in inner city areas. However, do we include suburb-set novels, like Tsiolkas’ The slap (2008) or, say, Patrick White’s The solid mandala (1968), in our definition of urban? Is there a difference, subtle or not so subtle, in the way novels set in inner city areas play out versus those set in the suburbs? I have a feeling there is.

However, Google wasn’t much help. I did find various bits and pieces, including reference to a “new” urban fiction or street lit genre which is, apparently, largely written by African-American writers, and, says the  Wikipedia article, is “as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”. This article, like others I saw about this “new” genre, is somewhat patchy but it does identify what seems integral to urban  literature as I see it, which is that it’s “usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse“Underside” here is the operative word, and refers, for me, to those “socio-economic realities”, Wikipedia mentions. Urban fiction tends (and I am generalising) to be about poverty and the various challenges and ills that occur in such an environment – marginalisation (of workers, women, migrants, and so on), crime, drugs, poor health, insecure accommodation, and so on – most of which stem from a sense of powerlessness. These are the sorts of issues variously confronted by Tennant, Park and Garner, and by other “urban” books I’ve reviewed here like William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (1892) and Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961). Many of these novels are – or owe much to – the social realist tradition. Christina Stead’s Seven poor men of Sydney (1934) also fits here.

If we look at urban-set historical fiction, this general trend seems to hold true. Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger town (2014), Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (2015), Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (2015), and Janet Lee’s The killing of Louisa (2018), for example, all tell of poor and/or marginalised people, from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

There are exceptions, however. Literature, after all, is not a binary affair. So, not all urban-set novels are about poverty and socio-economic challenges. Ada Cambridge’s novels like The three Miss Kings (1883) and A woman’s friendship (1889), Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1888), and Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (1936) are set amongst more comfortable and/or often more educated people. They tend to deal with more personal stories to do with family, marriage and self-determination, particularly for women.

Suburban fiction, on the other hand, is not necessarily cheerier, but the concerns can be different. Almost by definition, its focus tends to be the middle class, and it can be more existential because these characters are not struggling for material survival. So, for example, it can be about alienation and spiritual emptiness. Patrick White is a good example, with The solid mandala being a favourite of mine. Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower is a psychologically dark novel about young girls left to fend for themselves, so has a nod to the realist urban novels, but the crisis these young women face is of another ilk altogether.

Christos Tsiolkas, The slapAnother common topic in suburban novels is family – often family dysfunction. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), set in Perth’s suburbs, is probably the Australian suburban novel of the last few decades, though its protagonists are “battlers” rather than the middle class, and the story is told against the backdrop of history over a few decades. Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap also fits into these family-focused books, but again it’s overlaid with contemporary issues like class, sexuality, and ethnicity.

Steven Carroll’s six Glenroy novels (2001-2019), which I haven’t read, is a series set in Melbourne suburbia. Fairfax literary editor Jason Steger says that these

books have ensured that suburban life has been beautifully chronicled in Carroll’s distinctive style and is ensured a place in Australian literary heritage.

Steger reports that Carroll had read little fiction set in Australian suburbia, besides George Johnston’s My brother Jack (1964). Carroll sees suburban fiction this way

… taking the suburbs, the evolution of the suburb, and ordinary people living in that suburb and looking at the evolution of that place and the people simultaneously and acquiring a panoramic view of the whole thing over a series of novels.

He doesn’t say, though, what that “panoramic” view might be – and therefore how these books might fit into my discussion here!

Anyhow, moving on, the preoccupations and self-absorption of middle class suburbanites is ripe for satire – of which Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (2015) is a perfect example.

Coming-of-age novels are often set – not surprisingly – in the suburbs, like Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (2009), Sonya Hartnett’s Golden boys (2014), and Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (2018).

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerThen, there are the outliers. Where to put Elizabeth Jolley’s novels, many of which are set in  suburbs? Many of her characters are alienated or anxious, so perhaps they are a development of the Patrick White tradition? Amy Witting, Marion Halligan and Jessica Anderson have also set novels in cities and suburbs, some with a wry edge, and many dealing with the challenges women face in navigating contemporary life. And then there’s Sara Dowse’s West block – about to be reissued – which is probably unique here, with its life-within-the-bureaucracy context.

When the fiction – urban or suburban – is set affects the subject matter. Late nineteenth to early twentieth century novels, for example, started to discuss the role and rights of women, aligning with the suffrage and nascent feminist movements. In novels set since World War II, we start to see migration coming to the fore. Madeleine St John’s The women in black (1993) covers both women’s movement issues, and the positive impact of European migration on Australia, in the 1950s. Later novels though deal with some of the uglier aspects of migration – with discrimination and persecution – such as AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (2015).

Tony Birch, Ghost riverWe are also seeing some urban-suburban set Indigenous novels, like Tony Birch’s Ghost river (2015). These tend to be politically-charged, reminiscent in intent if not necessarily in style, of those earlier twentieth century realist novels.

I have made some wild generalisations here, and my coverage of Aussie lit is superficial, but I hope I’ve stimulated some discussion. I also hope Sue is happy with my attempt to meet her request!

(Links on titles are to my reviews. I haven’t linked other blog reviews, because there are too many, but you know where to look!)