Debating Rural Writing: A Response to Geordie Williamson

Rebecca Starford, managing editor of Kill Your Darlings, writes back to Geordie Williamson’s Long View essay on Australian rural writing and wonders: what does this trend of privileging the rural story say about our culture more generally?

Geordie Williamson’s ‘Our Common Ground’ is an erudite and engaging essay on rural Australian life represented in literature. But I was surprised to find myself quoted within it, and the implication that I do not appreciate this literary tradition.

‘I can only claim to have read three of the books on the list – Silvey, Flanagan and McGahan. But I already see the same patterns in selection evidenced in recent Miles Franklin shortlists – masculine novels that disproportionately focus on events from the past (are we so fearful of examining contemporary Australian society?) as well as bush settings.’

My comments on the 2012 National Year of Reading’s recommended reading list can be found, in full, in the Liticism post Geordie quotes. They’re neither radical nor particularly original – the debate about the underrepresentation of women in Australian literary prizes has been raging for the last year or so. In the case of the National Year of Reading list, only one woman writer featured; seven were men.

I took issue with the National Year of Reading’s lofty claim to be the arbiter of ‘what it is to be Australian’. I don’t think anyone can argue that a list including only one woman articulates the genuine Australian experience. Nor can a list that has virtually no ethnic representation (with the exception of indigenous Australians).

I have an interest in such questions about Australian literature: I’m an editor and publisher. I’m also a member of the Stella Prize committee, a group dedicated to establishing a prize celebrating Australian women’s writing, as well as initiating research into national reading habits and trends based around gender.

In my comments to Liticism blogger Bethanie Blanchard, I also made note that many of the National Year of Reading texts are set in the past and/or the bush. ‘What do we miss when we mount arguments about the state of contemporary Australian literature,’ Williamson went on to ask in ‘Our Common Ground’, ‘without recourse to its foundation texts?’

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments – a literary critic must be immersed in the literature he or she aspires to critique. But what does this trend of privileging the rural story say about our literary culture more generally, a genre that has 200 years of masculine, Anglo and heterosexual parameters?

I’m not lambasting our rich vein of bush writing, mind you, and Williamson’s inspiring analysis of some of our finest literary practitioners should send any discerning reader running to their local bookshop. As it happens, I have read a great number of novels located in the bush. I’m a huge admirer of Thea Astley, David Malouf, Kylie Tennant, Elizabeth Jolley, Xavier Herbert, just to name a few (I will never claim to be a fan of Patrick White). Going further back, I count the wickedly subversive 19th-century novelist and short-story writer Barbara Baynton (the subject of my thesis at university) and Rolf Boldrewood two of my favourite writers of all time.

What my comments urged for was a greater degree of reflection about the implications of these lists and prizes, and how they shape our literary culture. With 89% percent of our population living in urban areas, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world – so it’s not odd to wonder, is it, why so many of these award-winning novels are located in the bush?

Williamson cites the dangers of polarity is this debate, how easily nuance and complexity is lost. I agree with his assertion that the embedded and unexamined assumption that literature from the bush is ‘inevitably conservative, exclusionary and passé’ denies the intricate relationship between the division of rural and urban Australia.

Yet it’s the issues behind this discussion that are most revealing and interest me most. As many of us would agree, much cultural debate in this country is bereft of nuance and complexity – it doesn’t matter if it’s about a price on carbon or football codes. Conversations about the sensitive subject of our national literary tradition are unlikely to be any different.

Increasingly, I’m aware of this apparent fear of examining contemporary social and cultural issues in Australian fiction, and how this trepidation is evidenced in the awards system. The best historical fiction, as we all know, casts a sceptical and interpretive light onto events of the past, often illuminating the contemporary human condition. But are we so nostalgic for the past that it turns our gaze from more recent social wrongs?

We’re not so keen on reading about such squeamish contemporary domestic issues – where are the prize-winning works about the Stolen Generations, the Forgotten Australians, the federal intervention in the Northern Territory, asylum seekers, internment camps, mining and destructive climate change? We’re happy to sing the praises of a novel like The Secret River (and well-deserving it is) but something nearer to our own experiences, to our own time and place, causes us to shy away.

There are some novels that buck this trend, of course. Look at the phenomenal success, both critically and commercially, of a novel like The Slap. Here was a novel of our time that spoke to a particular reader of a particular milieu, the crass bourgeoisie stewing in their own ennui. Occasionally, other suburban novels, like Steven Carroll’s superb The Time We Have Taken, have been given the nod by the Miles Franklin judges. But look carefully at the subject matter of these novels – how deep do they analyse contemporary Australian society, how unflinching is their gaze? And even The Time We Have Taken is set in the past …

Williamson claims a personal interest in bush writing: he grew up on a farm near Grenfell, a small town in NSW, the birthplace of Henry Lawson, the granddaddy of the bush tradition. I was born in Melbourne in the mid 1980s, and I grew up in Williamstown, a small suburb in the west of Melbourne (a town where, incidentally, 19th-century novelist and journalist Ada Cambridge lived for two decades). Like Williamson, my own experiences have informed my taste in literature. I enjoy many Australian novels with a rural setting, have studied and in turn appreciated their literary precursors; but I would like to see the narrow definition of the Australian experience broadened – and more of my world represented in our national literature.

Rebecca Starford is the associate publisher at Affirm Press and managing editor of Kill Your Darlings.