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Historical novels

I came to reading, to really reading, fiction in the 1980s, which felt then, and seems even more in retrospect, like a golden era for the novel. In the mid-’80s at Sydney University you could not hold your head up without having read The Unbearable Lightness of Being or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The gay boys of our acquaintance circulated copies of HQ, featuring long interviews with ‘new exotic’ writers like Bruce Chatwin; the straight boys wooed prospective girlfriends, perhaps inadvisedly, with copies of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Serious girls cropped and violently coloured their hair in homage to the heroines of Helen Garner novels. The coolest students migrated either to the Fine Arts department—still buzzing after the 1984 visit of Jean Baudrillard—or to the Australian literature courses, where they discussed the merits of Astley over Adams; in their spare time they might pen credible imitations of Peter Carey’s ‘Death of the Mime’ or attend readings at the Harold Park Hotel.

Flash forward almost 20 years and the talk, wherever you turn, is of a literary crisis—particularly in Australia. Over the last five years or so there has been a growing sense of panic about the state of fiction that began around the time of the Demidenko (and subsequent Radley and Koolmatrie) frauds. In 1996, Miles Franklin winner Christopher Koch charged the demon of postmodernism for our failing literary culture; more recently Frank Moorhouse blamed creative writing courses for saturating an already overloaded market. Others lamented the proliferation of grunge, or the absence of ‘political’ novels from the literary landscape. This sense of urgent pessimism really gathered force in 2000 when the Australian Book Review ran a symposium on whether we published ‘too many’ or too many ‘mediocre’ novels. It was underscored by the seven-year-long grip of the Howard government, an arts-hostile regime that, under the guise of returning us to the solid values that had supposedly been inhibited by the political correctness of the Keating era, was characterised by meanness of spirit, insular self-interest, and a strict adherence to the fiscal bottom line.

Since early 2002 this anxiety about the state of the art has centred on the content of Australian literature and its apparent failure to confront the present. In the Bulletin (13 November 2002) Hannie Rayson called for a ‘theatre of engagement’, while in The Sydney Morning Herald, Malcolm Knox (21 January 2002) and Drusilla Modjeska (8 August 2002) took the Australian novel to task for its retreat from modern life.

According to Knox and Modjeska we are writing too many historical novels. Modjeska, once a great lover of Australian fiction, was surprised recently to discover that she no longer enjoyed Australian novels, which she finds, on the whole, ‘tricksy and insubstantial’. While our non-fiction writers have risen to the complexities of our times, she argued, the sheer rate of change seems to have overwhelmed the novel, which now confines itself almost exclusively to exotic settings or the past. Knox, too, was troubled by his own lack of interest in contemporary Australian fiction; novels written by French and American authors (Houellebecq, Franzen, Moody) seemed to capture his own reality far more effectively than, say, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. This was because too many Australian novels have retreated into the ‘far-off, the period, the unfamiliar, the allegoric’.

There is no doubt that these are difficult times, in which it seems reasonable to be both alert and alarmed. The Keating-era sense of optimism about both Australia’s future and the possibilities of fiction seems light years away now. It is hard sometimes to feel excited about writing novels at all. There is a sense, at least among writers of my own generation, of flatness, a holding of breath as we hope that someone will write the next significant book, a weariness about our floated and inflated writing economy, with its big advances and over-hyped new novels—as a friend says, ‘Sometimes I read and find myself thinking, it’s all just text.’

But is writing about historical subject matter a decadent activity these days—as Knox puts it, fiddling while Rome burns?

I cannot help feeling that arguing for more novels about the present and fewer about the past is not particularly helpful. How far back, for example, does a novel have to reach to be disqualified from relevance—20, 30, 100 years? Is all modern subject matter on higher moral ground: are novels, say, about cross-dressing policemen in the outback, or simplistic takes on economic rationalism automatically better than ones about the cruelty of Australia’s early penal system that still haunts us, or Australia’s first step into international affairs? Is it possible to be too much of the moment (and here I think of Joan Didion, whose essays about the ’70s are endlessly readable, but whose coolly contemporaneous novels now seem impenetrable)? What of Kim Scott’s splendid Benang, which commits the triple offence of combining the past, allegory, and magic realism to find a metaphor to encompass 100 years of Aboriginal grief and hurt?

Aren’t there more useful questions we should be asking about the types of books we wish to read and write?

The most surprising aspect of the Rayson, Knox, and Modjeska articles is their tacit agreement that the use of historical material is, ipso facto, politically complacent: by writing about history, swottish authors are aiming for gold stars (neatness, tick; cultural cachet, tick) while shrinking from the messiness of the present. Modjeska (and Heat editor Ivor Indyk, quoted by Knox) infer that Australian authors gravitate to history because it sells well in the global market place. Knox dismisses the historical novel as a throwback to Australian film’s ’70s costume dramas of ‘starched collars, horses, waxed moustaches and lace corsets’.

This is grist for good polemic, but it is also, ironically, an exercise in forgetting. Even if the historical novel has passed its use-by date—which seems doubtful—to dismiss it outright risks sacrificing some of the best and most useful impulses in our recent literary past.

The historical novel has its own history, of course, which some academics date back to the 1820s—but it seemed to take on a particular energy and tone after the great decolonisations of the 1960s when new groups began to speak at last for themselves and question the authority of history itself: women, people of colour, gays and lesbians, the citizens of newly liberated colonial regimes. This demystification of history was behind the late 20th-century explosion of novels that fictionalised real people in order to challenge more orthodox, nationalistic versions of the past. There was nothing cute or conservative about E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1976) for example, a watershed book that retold the story of 20th-century America’s teens from the point of view of three families: white, Jewish, and black. Doctorow’s use of real historical figures (Houdini, Emma Goldman), now a much-criticised trope of recent fiction, was an act of chutzpah. It was—and to me still is—a delight to see the polite façade of official history broken open, to see historical figures as individuals with private motivations, to watch Doctorow argue with America’s saccharine version of its past.

In Australia, novels like The Savage Crows (1976) and Lilian’s Story (1985) coincided with a groundswell of new ways of thinking about our history, ranging from Aboriginal challenges to terra nullius to the recuperative work of academics such as the University of Sydney’s Elizabeth Webby who were digging into the archives to discover the forgotten works of Australian women writers. Australian history became sexy, not just a textbook rehearsal of Gradgrindian facts. The historical novel could uncover forgotten stories and show us how things might have turned out differently. This still seems desirable, particularly in the case of reconciliation. I am persuaded by Ross Gibson’s argument that we need to revisit our history’s badlands in all their complexity, or else risk being paralysed by nostalgia for an over-simplified past.

The novel may stand alone in its ability to deliver this complexity; Milan Kundera argues that the power to create a fully human world is the novel’s exclusive preserve, because of its long tradition of humorous scepticism and of creating a realm in which judgment is suspended. I noted with interest John Howard’s holiday reading, reported recently in the Sydney Morning Herald: Rudi Giuliani’s Leadership, Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, a biography of Churchill, an account of the fall of Enron. Howard seems to like dry facts, to see them arranged into stories of progress, and hates it when they interfere with his version of the present (in which case they are ‘black armband’ history). As I looked at this list I could not help thinking, if only Howard could be moved by an imaginative reconstruction of our history; if only he could be jolted out of his own simplified fictions of mateship and of a harmonious white Australia. It still seems to me worthwhile as a novelist to say, after Doctorow, there were Aborigines, there were Afghans, there were boat people, there were Chinese, from the first years of this nation.

Yet this debate also reminds us that the historical novel is not, ipso facto, an anti-conservative form either; like any genre it needs to renew itself or become stale. In times like this it seems more important than ever to be able to distinguish those novels that have true utopian force, a force that other books can build on.

What might the new breed of novel about the present look like? Knox and Modjeska agree on one candidate—The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

This best selling novel tells an apparently simple story: a Midwestern mother whose children live dispersed along the east coast of America wants them to come home for Christmas. Around this basic plot structure and its beautifully realised characters, Franzen manages to paint a broader picture of the traditional values that defined middle America disappearing into a world as confusing and unrecognisable to Enid as it is to her husband, who is in the first throes of Parkinsonian dementia.

While Knox and Modjeska praise The Corrections for its confrontation with the present, it is salutary to note that Franzen’s novel was used in an entirely different, and contradictory, crisis in the northern hemisphere last year. Not long after the World Trade Center fell, the English critic James Wood placed a piece in the Guardian—the most high-profile of a number of publications on the same theme—arguing that too many novels were relentlessly about the present. He accused young novelists of an ‘hysterical realism’ inherited from the Great American Social Novel pioneered by DeLillo: a superficial fascination with the trivial, the obscure, the fashionable, the evanescent. Like Knox and Modjeska, Wood was concerned that the authors were writing for brownie points: ‘The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about ... the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics!’ Wood conceded that, in spite of its ‘softened DeLilloism’, The Corrections at least came close to returning the novel to its proper concerns —the metaphysical, the human, the inner life of a culture.

Clearly, The Corrections’ power goes beyond mere content. Franzen’s genius lies in coming up with an enduring metaphor for the process of late 20th-century change itself—‘correction’, the supposed ability of the stock market in a deregulated global economy to right itself. Each of Franzen’s characters pursues this implicit promise. Such deep metaphor gives the novel’s ruminations on contemporary cuisine, its forays into Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and advertising and scriptwriting, suggestiveness and a convincing sense of purpose.

It is also worth noting that in his now-famous Harper’s essay, ‘Why bother?’ Franzen does not spruik for the novel-about-the-present, but considers instead how to pull it off. The technology lag between novel and electronic media means that it takes years to write a good book, while it takes only minutes in
televisual time for a vast range of ideas, objects and issues to emerge, exhaust themselves, and die; this means the novel is no longer suited to the Tolstoyan or Dickensian mission of social reportage. And in times characterised by ever-more-rapid change, how do you write a novel that isn’t bloated with issues? ‘I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV,’ Franzen writes, ‘and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirise Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well, while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale?’

To be fair, Modjeska flags some of these dilemmas, but Franzen goes further towards thinking through some technical solutions. He argues that the point of literary fiction these days is to be essentially ‘tragic’; that is, to raise more questions than it answers, and to eschew the ‘rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture’. In an age of simplicity it is one of the last bastions of the complex: it is charged with preserving the ‘dirt’ behind a culture’s polished surfaces.

Here is an irony. What works about Franzen’s approach—historical intelligence, allegory, intervention—is also the province of the best historical novels. What is going on?

These contradictions point to a more legitimate focus for panic than our novels—the crisis in our reading culture. It seems to me that this latest crisis over content is a smokescreen for a bigger, more alarming story that has manifested its symptoms over the last five years in a whole chain of moral panics.

It is impossible, here, to do more than gesture towards some of the problems afflicting the literary novel over the last decade. These include a devastating disappearance of spaces for the long review-essay; belt-tightening in the publishing industry; changing fashions in the teaching of literature away from the close reading of novels; and a concurrent hostility in the press toward anything with the taint of the ‘academic’ (particularly the demon of ‘postmodernism’). These factors have led to the distressing situation we find ourselves in now: a literature divided into competing niches, plagued by nostalgia, while contemporary novels face a rapid obsolescence. What is most alarming is the fact that a whole generation of recent novels has all but disappeared from view. We are in a kind of Twilight Zone in which new novels are omnipresent yet invisible; a paradox that is reflected in our panics and critical confusion. Writing by newer authors is often dismissed from the literary estate as mediocre, flimsy, or the calculated product of creative writing courses; or, perversely, praised to the skies and quickly forgotten. Yet the fact is that, hidden deep within the blind spot of this panic is a feast of interesting, edgy, and political novels about both the present and the past.

Contrary to popular belief, the best novels do not automatically endure; T.S. Eliot said that they did, but he also dispensed a lot of ink explaining why his own work belonged, naturally, to the exclusive club of greats. A healthy literature depends upon a healthy literary culture; great novels may be born, but then they must also, to a certain extent, be made. It is important to remember that the great optimism about our literature in the ’80s coincided with the boom in Austlit studies, which relied, understandably, on discovering great living authors to define its own position in the academic market place. I wish by no means to diminish the achievements of Peter Carey, say, who is a fine writer in anyone’s terms, but there is no denying that this facilitated appreciation of his work.

Things changed in the ’90s when English departments moved on into the newer, groovier disciplines of literary theory and cultural studies (while media studies is the buzzword of the early 2000s): individual authorship and the concept of ‘great’ literature were replaced with a focus on the meanings readers made of books and films. At the same time departments that had undergone the theory revolution rooted out close reading courses like noxious weeds, an interesting move for disciplines that value pluralism. Meanwhile, the academics and critics who stayed with Austlit stuck largely with the generation they had unearthed: Grenville, Jolley, et al.

Take a tour of the Australian literature reading lists of our universities now and there is a spooky sense of déjà vu: with the exception of Carey’s new work it is hard to find novels more recent than It’s Raining in Mango or The Well. Our most recent academic study of a literary generation is Brian Kiernan’s Most Beautiful Liars (1977); we have not had an overview of contemporary Australian writing since The New Diversity (1988). There is no conspiracy here. But what rankles is a lack of historical self-consciousness among some Austlit academics, who are perhaps projecting their own discipline’s loss of authority onto the newer writers. It was distressing to hear one professor claim that there had been no significant novels of the ’90s.

At the same time the crisis in academic funding has meant that a new generation of academics and critics has not moved in. Reading The Corrections I also felt, like Knox, a stab of recognition. Chip is a stand-in for my own generation: who attended university in the ’80s, who believed in concepts of ‘resistance’ and the ‘trickle down’ effect of academic thought, who emerged from MAs or doctorates to discover that there were no jobs in academia. My social world is full of ‘Chips’ in their late thirties or early forties, in a state of passive depression, still finishing theses, or struggling with part-time jobs in academia. The more successful Chips are now working in the public service or have just retrained as lawyers.

The invisibility of ’90s fiction was compounded by a loss of spaces for reviewing. Reviews do not tell us the ‘right’ way to read novels, but they have the effect of suggesting that books are thick and meaningful and of broadening avenues for their interpretation. Review journals of the ’80s such as The Age Monthly Review could consider Australian writing in long articles that were not unusual in going over 10,000 words compared to the average 900-word review in today’s papers.

It sounds churlish to point these things out. In a way things have never seemed better than for the writers who began their careers in the ’90s. In spite of post-GST turbulence, there are more novels being published, more writers’ festivals, mentorships, residencies, book clubs: I am grateful for every single one of those opportunities. In a sense, we are in the last throes of the ’80s bull market that announced itself with those images in HQ of Jeanette Winterson nude and painted as a faun: this is our deregulated phase, as Knox and Modjeska rightly point out, in which Australian novels, at least of a certain type, have sudden currency overseas. Yet the more we chat about writing, the less we say about it at length. Most festivals are tied to the promotional sche­dules of publishers; the author’s advance is often the main focus of publicity; niche marketing focuses on content. Part of our ennui in the face of new books has less to do with the sameness of their content than the seamlessness of their promotion. The juggernaut moves on to the next new book, while we have no time to explore what makes them unique.

Take the sad, short life of ‘grunge’. Here was a group of young novelists writing risky books about the present—what we say we want. But grunge was the product of a highly successful advertising
campaign whipped up around Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia. This aggressive branding exercise set the terms of the debate, which was predictably polarised: ‘grunge’ writers like Ettler, Christos Tsiolkas, and Andrew McGahan were lumped together on panel sessions in which they, quite fairly, ended up arguing their exceptionalism. The net result was a reduction of their books to content: weren’t they just about drugs and sex? While critics yearned for ‘political’ novels they scanned the horizon for books about party politics or economics; they entirely missed the fact that Loaded, like The Corrections, was a sophisticated attempt to look at how globalisation has changed the old categories by which we used to understand our place in the world. Grunge exhausted itself quickly; mention it to a table of publishers at a writers’ festival now and you could be excused for thinking you were looking at a ‘Who Farted?’ calender.

But perhaps the most pernicious influence on our literature has been an abiding hostility to any taint of ‘postmodernism’, the demon that lurks in terms like ‘tricksy’ and ‘insubstantial’; that is used to invoke a vast array of sins including  alienation, a lack of heart, amorality, incoherence, even Demidenko. No matter how edgy their work was, no-one wanted to be labelled postmodern, which was even worse than grunge. There is an element of comedy in the fact that while postmodern university departments were losing their interest in novels, creative writing courses that tended to be anti-theoretical were being accused of churning out postmodern clever-clever books. There is something comic about the sight of some of our mature writers, whose works were being studied in postmodern courses, scaring the punters at festivals with tall tales about the evils of postmodern theory.

This wilful misrepresentation of ‘theory’ has meant a critical refusal to  actually see some of the changing ideas (about history, for example) that were part of the wellspring of contemporary fiction. Because whatever is experimental or iconoclastic about our writing has had to be kept at a remove from this contamination, a kind of myth has evolved that whatever is new has sprung fully formed out of the ether; what works is thus made unrepeatable. It is supremely ironic that that book of the hour, The Corrections, is absolutely postmodern in its outlook: in his metaphor of ‘corrections’ Franzen sees his characters’ lives as a set of economic symptoms.

This is a crisis indeed. But my point is not to compile a catalogue of woe, rather to suggest the ways in which our recent novels are in relatively good shape—but also to sound a warning note that if we cannot find a way to locate and marshall their more positive energies, we risk making little progress.

Perhaps, above all, we need to acknowledge that history itself has moved along with our literature; that the very concept of a novel that can sum up ‘our’ present might be dated.

It may be that the novels that tell us who we are are already here, or need rescuing from the queer, koori, grunge, po-mo, historical, or multicult baskets. It may be that we need to stop scanning the horizon for the old-fashioned ‘political novel’ and learn to read novels that trace the byways of globalisation in private lives as ‘political’ too; we might need to foster novels with experimental—perhaps even ‘postmodern’
forms—as they try to fit themselves to a new reality. It may be that there will not be one big blockbuster like The Corrections that will perform the more and more impossible feat of summing everything up.

Our best sense of ourselves will come out of the broadest ecology of novels. 

Delia Falconer is the author of The Service of Clouds.



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