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Historical novels

  • 06 July 2006

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