By Tony Birch
‘Not Doing a Novel’: Recent Australian Short Fiction
American writer Flannery O’Connor published her seminal short story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’, in 1953. She released a short-story collection under the same title, in addition to a slim body of work including two novels, a second story collection (not including a subsequent Complete Stories) and many essays on writing. As reflected by the ‘shout-lines’ on the jackets of works of fiction – and the comments of writers themselves – O’Connor is regularly cited as a major influence on contemporary literature of a particular North American style. Writers who claim (or are claimed by others) to be in her debt include Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell, Annie Proulx and Richard Ford.
While the shout-line itself may be regarded as a disposable publicity device, what is undeniable about O’Connor’s influence is that story. ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ exemplifies Southern melodrama and baroque, if hyperbolic language at its best. The story is ‘mad’, the violence abrupt, and the characters obscene. It’s unlikely you could read a story such as Daniel Woodrell’s recent ‘Uncle’, (from his 2011 collection The Outlaw Album) without being reminded of the dreaded Misfit in ‘A Good Man …’ The similarly graphic conclusion to Woodrell’s story is also reminiscent of O’Connor’s signature endings.
While her literary influence is sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as Faulkner and Steinbeck, O’Connor’s place in the literary pantheon is directly attributed to her short fiction, rather than the novel. We do not have a writer of such influence in Australia; certainly not a writer revered primarily for their short fiction. It is true that we have a short-story ‘tradition’ of sorts, with Henry Lawson occasionally thrown up (still) as the ‘father’ of the short story in Australia. His ‘Drover’s Wife’ (perhaps his most well known story) maintains status for some, due to its representation of the ‘pioneer battler’ (at least it’s a woman in this instance); a staple of settler-Australia’s collective identity. As opposed to O’Connor’s shocking portrayal of society, ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is essentially a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ fable of Australian life (even if the snake is a little unsettling).
But it would be difficult to argue for the influence of Lawson’s style on contemporary Australian short-story writers. It would be unlikely to sight a dust jacket screaming ‘in the style of Henry Lawson’, unless the book was about to go on sale in regional and rural Australia alone. My point is not to denigrate Lawson, or those who continue to enjoy his writing and find influence in his style. In fact, a good friend of mine, Dennis McIntosh, wrote a wonderful book, Beaten By A Blow, in 2009, described by one critic as a book that ‘could have been written by Lawson in the 1890s’. (The comparison did no harm.)
The place of the short story in both Australian literary culture and the market remains subordinate to the novel, unfairly so. There are many writers in Australia today, particularly new writers, producing fiction of the highest quality. But these writers face a problem. They are writing short stories, lots of them, in established and supportive literary journals and magazines such as Overland, Meanjin, Southerly and (the recently retired) Heat, in addition to the sassy and energetic new-kids-on-the-block, such as Sleepers Almanac, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow (perhaps more ‘young adults’ than kids). Most of these writers, if not unknown, are ignored outside a dedicated readership, while others only ‘prove themselves’ when they move away from the short to the longer form. And of course, any writer who puts out a successful novel in the first instance has earned the entitlement to have an occasional dabble in the short story.
In 2006, Melbourne’s Scribe agreed to publish my linked short-story collection, Shadowboxing. At the time, few such collections (outside anthologies) were being published in Australia. For sure, Tim Winton had put out his short-story cycle, The Turning, two years earlier. (A book I loved the first time around, and have read several times since). But that was Tim Winton, who no publisher needed to take a punt on. While talking with Scribe, I learned that another writer was soon to release a collection with them. I was not told the name of the writer; all I knew was that she was an acclaimed short-story writer who had been ‘widely published’ (as they say in the trade) and had won several prizes. Many in the book trade made the same remark: ‘she’s a great writer, but I just wish she would do a novel’.
The writer was Cate Kennedy. Scribe backed her anyway and published her collection, Dark Roots (2006). I have read that collection and taught individual stories in my creative writing classes. What strikes me, as both a reader and teacher, is that within the relatively small parcels in Dark Roots are stories of such depth, containing infinite layers of poignancy, that her stories would rightfully be regarded as seminal works of Australian literature. Were they scenes in a novel, they most likely would be. There seems to be an unwritten rule within literary culture in this country that the short story is easier, or that it cannot possibly contain the same literary weight and merit as the novel. With the exception of the phenomenal sales of Nam Le’s The Boat (released in 2008) short-story collections do not sell as well as novels. But sales alone should not determine their literary worth. (Obviously, some literary novels sell relatively poorly, but we continue to uphold their value).
In 2010 Kennedy published her debut novel, The World Beneath, also with Scribe. The book was well received critically and was shortlisted for several awards. But there was a subtext to some reviews and comments; namely that Kennedy had not ‘mastered’ the long form as well as she had short-story writing. The comments could have been compliments to Kennedy’s craft. But they seemed to infer that writing a novel is a greater test of creative ability; that Kennedy had tipped the bar, on her way up. However, followers of Kennedy’s writing feel that she is not only one of Australia’s best short-story writers, but one of our best writers – full-stop – and was so prior to attempting a novel.
While some critics and reviewers claim that the novel is the superior form, many novelists themselves do not concur. Some writers, including Peter Goldsworthy, Amanda Lohrey and David Malouf, appear to move effortlessly between the forms (as readers, we largely remain oblivious to the actual effort required). I have spoken with novelists at writers’ festivals and other literary events who are puzzled by the very idea of writing a short story. What most writers come to understand, instinctively, or perhaps unconsciously, is that the stories they write, and how they write them, are determined by the relationship between the creative concept and the favoured mode of production. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the story need be short. Or that it needs to become a novel to give it literary credibility. Each story needs to be created to a shape and size (length) that individual writers comprehend as their best way of telling the story they wish to write.
Nam Le’s The Boat is an exceptional collection in Australian literary history, in terms of both its sales and reception. While the book’s list of literary awards is far too long to mention here, the reviews were universally glowing (all that I have seen, at least). Both the book and the author arrived in Australia with some fanfare and anticipation. Le, originally a student at the University of Melbourne, had attended the famous Iowa Workshop (as had Flannery O’Connor) and several stories from the book had already been published in the US and won prestigious awards. But explaining the level of its success remains a puzzle; perhaps it could best be explained by the sales and marketing end of the literary landscape?
I am not being at all dismissive here. The writing in The Boat is of the highest quality; at times breathtakingly so. The stories are wonderfully weighted and balanced. It is a marvellous feeling to read a short story and reach its end knowing that you have experienced just enough. While the palate has been fully satisfied, a delightful aftertaste lingers. This was my experience of The Boat. Le himself is articulate, generous – and a publicity manager’s dream. (He is also genuinely sincere and modest.) So, we should be able to conclude that The Boat was successful because the writing is great, the writer likewise, the package ditto. Other books and writers occasionally gain the same status amongst critics and readers, but have limited success, particularly in the case of short fiction. So it remains, to some degree, a puzzle (which I attempt to solve below).
In the wake of The Boat (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun), short fiction collections began to appear more regularly in the independent bookshops of Australia. While it is doubtful that this was a direct result of Le’s success, some influence, or at least optimism was likely. In 2009, the pugnacious two-girl-band, Sleepers Publishing, published Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, while Scribe released Patrick Cullen’s What Came Between. Amsterdam’s book went on to win that year’s Age Book of the Year award. Although Cullen’s collection was less successful, commercially speaking, the writing was also top drawer. The books are coupled here because they are, or were, marketed as hybrid texts, books that could be described as either a ‘linked story collection’ or an example of the ‘discontinuous novel’. Both books could legitimately carry either label. They could equally have been marketed as short-story collections. But to do so, it would appear, would threaten commercial success.
While not wishing to turn this essay into a fan’s list, it is important to note several short-story collections and new publishing houses that highlight the exceptional quality of recent Australian short fiction. Karen Hitchcock’s Little White Slips (2009) was also superb. Not only were Hitchcock’s stories wonderfully shaped and told in a pitch-perfect voice, but they were so refreshing and original in tone and content that reading them was akin to tasting an exotic (and perhaps dangerous) new food. A year later, in 2010, Wayne Macauley, a true ‘writer’s writer’ published Other Stories. To read stories such as ‘The Man Who Invented Television’ was to enter a world that was discomforting, strange and endearing, all at the same time. Macauley writes like no other Australian writer. If he were a film-maker, his name might be David Lynch, his genius recognised. It was not surprising that Macualey was signed by Text Publishing immediately following the release of Other Stories. (Text released his debut novel, The Cook, in 2011.) While the novel was received with due praise, those who follow his writing hope that he will continue to also publish short stories.
The independent press has been invaluable to Australian literary culture. The smallest of them all, two new publishing houses, Affirm Press and Spineless Wonders, have shown a bold commitment to the short story, punching well above their respective weight. Affirm has recently completed publishing a cycle of six short-story collections by Australian writers, in the multi-volume ‘Shorts’. Beautifully packaged and showcasing relatively new literary voices (including Bob Franklin, Gretchen Shirm and Emmett Stinson), the ‘Shorts’ series has been popular among younger readers, particularly those who are interested in studying and writing short fiction. The same applies to Spineless Wonders, who have shown plenty of backbone in committing to newer and talented writers such as Pierz Newton-John (his collection, Fault Lines, is first class), Julie Chevalier and A.S. Patric.
If there is one Australian writer who currently attracts an excitement like that which preceded the publication of Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots in 2006, it is Patrick Holland. There was much buzz around the release of his 2010 novel, The Mary Smokes Boys. The book was subsequently longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. In the same year he published a short-story collection, The Source of the Sound, with Salt in the UK. The book received little attention in Australia. (Fortunately, it is being republished here, next month, by Melbourne-based Hunter Publishers.) Holland is a prodigious writer with talent to equal his creative energy. He also writes long fiction and creative non-fiction, including travel essays. He excels in each genre, but nothing surpasses the quality and originality of his short stories.
It has often been stated that literary success relies on luck. Such an idea is one that we writers fear. We do not want to rely on luck. We believe that talent will get us through. We may be misguided on at least two levels here. Talent often is not nearly enough to guarantee the success of a book. And, of course, we may not be as talented as we think we are. Nam Le is exceptionally talented. I suspect that, on the release of The Boat, every possible talisman aligned for him: the planets, tarot cards, a Ouija board and my mother’s nightly round of the rosary. This ‘luck’, supplemented by the very best writing, led to international success. Few short-story collections ever attain such status. Many short stories are read by a small number of readers. The majority of readers, who do not access these stories, need to discover what they are missing out on.