By Geordie Williamson

Our Common Ground

One Tuesday in early 2012, the organisation behind the National Year of Reading released its ‘Our Story’ recommended reading list: eight books – one from each state, and the Northern Territory – chosen (according to an accompanying press release) to ‘capture what it is to be Australian’.

Almost immediately, it was noted that only one of the chosen titles was by a woman. While many praised the initiative, they also registered disappointment at the list’s gender imbalance (the titles were chosen by the public from a series of state shortlists ). Two days later, Liticism blogger Bethanie Blanchard wrote a longer piece in response, quoting publisher and editor Rebecca Starford’s misgivings:

I can only claim to have read three of the books on the list … 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 … as well bush settings.

What Starford refers to here is an open wound in our recent literary history – the fact that, of the last three shortlists for our pre-eminent literary award, two have been exclusively male – and her criticism echoes others from 2011, when the most recent all-male list was announced. Back then, Literary Minded blogger Angela Meyer noted a bias towards historical, rural, and the Anglo in the choices made by the award’s judges. Under the rubric ‘sheep stations, war, colonisation’, she remarked of shortlisted titles by Roger McDonald, Chris Womersley and Kim Scott:

Isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice … I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define ‘Australian life’.

The impression left by such opinions is hardly neutral. They suggest that behind the favour shown to rural writing lies shadowy antitheses: a bias against the contemporary, the urban, the cosmopolitan. The main concern raised by the Miles Franklin’s second all-male shortlist in three years – endemic sexism in Australian literary culture – was widely and passionately debated. But the intimation that literature from the bush was inevitably conservative, exclusionary and passé flowed unchallenged into numerous print and digital tributaries. It was not a matter for dispute, but an embedded assumption.

The only problem with this division of rural and urban is that it doesn’t exist; or rather, the interrelationship is so complex as to make a nonsense of easy binaries. To acknowledge this is not to underplay some genuine issues. That inequalities of gender should stubbornly survive in the presumably sophisticated and thoughtful milieu of Australian literature is a matter for shame; it demands thorough investigation and practical response. Likewise, Meyer and others are right to observe that Miles Franklin juries have often interpreted the conditions attached to the prize too narrowly, and in so doing have excluded much worthwhile Australian literature.

But why should blanket dismissals of country-situated Oz lit be the necessary concomitant of facing these truths? We can’t draw a circle around our cities and say that all Australian reality worth noting occurs within their circumference – to do so is to sever cultural intelligence from ecological knowledge. Nor can we assume, in a society characterised by unprecedented geographic mobility, at a time when distance has been destroyed by a communications revolution, that static populations labelled ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ still exist.

This is neither an argument for a narrow interpretation of the Miles Franklin’s remit, nor part of a broader rearguard action against depictions of sub/urban narratives in contemporary Australian writing. Rather, it is a plea for a more encompassing vision of what our literature can be. To use texts from the past, many of which emerge from a rural tradition, as foils for our more enlightened attitudes is to damn much fine and important writing, along with masculinist and racist claptrap any thoughtful reader could spot a mile off. In aesthetic terms, it is to confuse the ‘low mimetic’ of Australian rural life and its dramas with the deeper, trans-historical qualities of any successful literary text; in a wider sense, it is to ignore the quantities of information about place encoded in a given narrative.

A more generous approach would be to admit that we cannot understand one realm without the other – that the overt tensions and hidden affinities between country and city are where the fullest sense of who we are resides: not just citizens with rights and obligations in the political realm, but human beings who dwell. Our selves are defined and delimited by landscape and climate, by the food we eat and the structures we build, by our domestic arrangements and the stigmata of our various occupations, as much as by a nation’s social compact and laws.

Of course the language we use betrays our attitudes. The way we speak and think about ‘the bush’ is indicated by the blinding generality of the term we use to describe it. The bush is a synecdoche for an endless patchwork of place whose geographic and biological diversity is impossibly rich: a mental desert, in other words, that in reality teems. By emptying the bush of its substance we clear the land to serve as a waste-site, where the musty artifacts of history that have come to disturb, bore or embarrass us may be stored. It’s an image made literal in Jeremy Chambers’ 2010 novel The Vintage and the Gleaning, when the narrator Smithy, a former shearer-turned-vineyard-labourer, passes through his employer’s farmyard, ‘with its empty dam and broken barley silo, littered with derelict equipment from boss’s father’s day and his grandfather’s and all the way back’:

Old winepresses of cast-iron and cracked wood, ploughs and yokes and rusted rims, machines with forgotten purpose. It is overgrown with cactus now, a great sprawling mass of pale leaves spreading out toothed and thicker and taller than a man, drooping under their own weight.

Chambers’ novel is a prose poem of rural desuetude, and its vision of country Australia is among the truest in our recent literature. Its setting may be small-town, but its message is universal: the same neo-liberal imperatives that have reshaped industry and the labour force in urban areas have left their mark here, too. A decline in smaller, family-run, ecologically diverse farms is revealed to have profound social consequences for both young and old. In Chambers’ world, not only jobs are lost but also a mode of being in the world, one characterised by patience, industry, self-reliance and thrift. Booze, violence, depression and crime are all that remains to these generations of the ontologically unmoored. A stark contrast, then, to the idealised images assigned to the bush and its denizens by popular culture and advertising to falsely humanise a globalised present.

Each of the shortlisted titles for last year’s Miles Franklin accedes to this melancholy, deracinated vision of rural Australia. Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran (2011) is a portrait of decline that takes a single invented country town for a canvas. Its main protagonist, Kingsley Colts, grows up the ward of a colourful bush legend named ‘Dunc’ Butler, who bears some resemblance to Ion Idriess, a prolific author and adventurer whose once-popular romances of rural Australian life now typify what critics of literary rurality despise.

However none of these has examined a folk ideologue such as Idriess with McDonald’s rich ambivalence. The novel explores the failure of Colts to measure up to the real and invented exploits of this often absent father figure; he ends up a failed lothario, and a drunk. As the bush slowly bleeds cultural distinctness and sociopolitical clout in the chapters that follow, subsequent generations of country boys emerge to be tested against the myths of Australian masculinity, only to be found lacking. When Colts Ran’s personal and local tragedy expands to question a way of life.

Kim Scott, whose That Deadman Dance (2010) went on to win the Miles Franklin, is one of only two indigenous Australian authors to have won the award (Alexis Wright received the award for Carpentaria in 2007), and the only indigenous author to have done so twice (his first win, for Benang, was shared with Thea Astley’s Drylands in 2000). His latest novel deals with the ruinous inroads made by European agriculture on West Australian soil.

This work, which may be described in simplistic terms as a retelling of one foundation story of Australian settlement from an indigenous point of view, digs beneath McDonald’s eulogy. It shows that farming in the Western tradition was inimical to the way of life of the Noongar people, who dwelled in the present-day region of Albany in Western Australia. Private property, private possessions and laws to protect them: an Old World brought to the New, established with the crucial aid of those earlier Australians familiar with the region’s landscape, weather, soil and water. All of them were displaced (a terrible euphemism for an upheaval so complete) as farming flourished and spread.

Scott’s characters don’t distinguish between town and country in his narration, any more than they obey the boundary fences put up to delineate land ownership. For the Noongar, the oppressive character of the society that ousts them is revealed in the totality of its manifestations. The beginnings of a true urban infrastructure appear only towards the novel’s end, with townships built to service the wealth being created on surrounding farmland. It’s worth noting that the ‘urban’ in this novel is not some separate arena of superior civic decency. It is the same dispossession sublimated in stone.

If McDonald and Scott, two relatively senior writers, both work towards a final deconstruction of rural Australia and its literary traditions, then the younger novelist Chris Womersely has moved entirely beyond their engagement with place. His second novel, Bereft (2011) depicts local characters moving through a local landscape; the world he sets in motion is a beautifully realised and historically legitimate approximation of rural Australia during the influenza plague that followed the Great War’s end.

And yet. Womersley’s novel is designed according to the exigencies of the contemporary publishing marketplace. Its primary interest is in genre – specifically ‘gothic’ – a form of narrative that easily traverses national boundaries and reading communities. His decision to situate the story in and around a former mining community is governed less by particular affiliation with region than the suitably exotic natural landscape. The region’s man-made topography, with its many despoiled spaces and abandoned mine-shafts, makes it an ideal objective correlative to a narrative filled with secrets.

This is not to suggest bad faith on Womersley’s part; far from it. Womersley’s gothic novel is a superb example of its kind by a talented author. Doubtless he was perplexed to find himself drawn into arguments over the validity of rural writing, when Bereft’s setting was incidental to the story he was trying to tell.

Though to be aware of the complexities thrown up by these texts – the ways in which they subvert, condemn or slide past those aspects of rurality they are meant to define – you would first be obliged to read them, and here arises a more banal reason for the massed criticism that met the shortlisted titles. In 1996, the mid-western American author and essayist Marilynne Robinson published a defence of the writings of 16th-century theologian Martin Luther. She wrote ‘of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved’.

For Robinson, such consensus works to close a subject from enquiry. Often it punishes the very broaching of a topic. The recent migration of cultural and political discussion to digital platforms, with their swarming democratic openness, has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing this consensus, since deviation from party lines can be attacked with an unprecedented collective vigour and swiftness. I am surely not alone in preferring to be on the right side of a Twitter spray or Facebook vent.

What is true of Luther is true of the literature of rural Australia. Who outside the academy today reads the 19th-century novels of Catherine Martin, James Tucker or Rosa Praed, the better to test the claims of rurality’s critics? When were new editions of works by Ralph Darby Davison, Dal Stivens, Vance Palmer last prepared? At least the novels of Patrick White are set to be reissued this year, to mark the centenary of his birth. But enthusiasm for the author, despite impeccable modernist credentials and worthy political stands, seems blunted by the man’s pastoral associations. He carries the stain of his grazier forbears as someone with convict roots might have done in years gone by. Marilynne Robinson deplored misreadings (and so deformations) of the Puritan tradition that emerged from ignorance of Luther’s writings. What do we miss when we mount arguments about the state of contemporary Australian literature without recourse to its foundation texts?

There is another possibility. The relative neglect of these writers could be the simple result of aesthetic shortcomings: ‘Some books are undeservedly forgotten’, observed W.H. Auden, ‘none are undeservedly remembered.’ While this is surely not the case with White, there may be others whose obscurity is warranted. The Burning Library – a book I am currently writing for Melbourne’s Text Publishing as an experiment in retrospective literary criticism – is an attempt to rescue some works of Australian fiction from history’s dustbin. My tentative and necessarily subjective hypothesis is that a number of Australian novels from the last century that should still be read today are not. My gut feeling is that the works most likely to have fallen out of favour are those whose setting and ostensible concerns are non-urban.

I should admit at this point that my interest in bush writing is personal. I grew up on a farm near Grenfell, a small town in central western New South Wales. And though a love for the area’s natural landscape was fixed from the outset, my appreciation of rural life in general was limited. I found the world around me narrow, tedious and parochial, and I later avoided literary depictions of the country on the basis that these could only be dull reiterations of that early experience. Like many others, I lit out for the (urban) territories as soon as I was able.

Only in recent years have I regained an interest in the literature of country Australia, and in Grenfell. It turns out to be a town whose literary associations are far richer than a place of its size should merit. Many will know it as the birthplace of Henry Lawson. A dusty cenotaph marking the spot adjoined the sports grounds (at Little Athletics, older boys would compete to see who could piss furthest up its sides) on the edge of town.

Once you get over the incongruousness of the setting – that a writer of signal importance to our nation could be born in so distant and unprepossessing a place – nothing seems more apposite. It was the egalitarian ethos of country Australia that inspired Lawson’s socialist and republican beliefs (even if it was the alienating hardships of urban life that reinforced them). And it was from bush sources that Lawson first codified the popular, unlettered, vernacular storytelling tradition that Geoffrey Dutton, in the 1976 introduction to The Literature of Australia, described as the first instance in any literature where a democratic, working-class voice was dominant. One of the resounding ironies of our present situation is that Lawson’s radicalism has been absorbed into the bloodstream of those currently decrying the innate conservatism of rural literature.

The same is true for Lawson’s mother, Louisa, who is in many respects a more admirable figure than her son. Her feminism was not exclusively activated by proximity to an intellectual vanguard in Sydney, where she published Australia’s first women’s magazine, The Dawn, from the late 1880s. It was learned earlier, in a harsh and alien environment where women were obliged to be as hard-working, resourceful and long-suffering as men whose gender superiority was nonetheless assumed. The city may have offered the infrastructure for communication of Lawson’s proto-feminism, but that engagement was shaped by the experience of raising five children as an intermittently single mother on forty acres at Eurunderee.

But it is a third, more recent figure from Grenfell whose work best reveals the artificiality of the divide between city and country. Historian, poet and nature writer Eric Rolls was born in 1923 and raised only kilometres from where I grew up in the Weddin Valley. After World War II he farmed in New England, and later retired to the mid-north coast. Over the decades he produced volumes of poetry and children’s books, but it was a number of uncategorisable celebrations of place that made his name. Books such as 1974’s The River (about the Namoi) and 1981’s A Million Wild Acres (a deep history of the Pillaga scrub region of New South Wales’ north, site of the first European forest to be declared a national park) were simultaneously poems in prose and environmental studies; they read as scientific rhapsodies.

Not only did Rolls blur the traditional boundaries of literary genre; he collapsed the distinctions between culture and nature. It was his long experience as a farmer that embedded him in the landscape; that made him a participant in the natural world rather than an aloof observer. And it was his careful first-hand observation (allied with a large imaginative sympathy with the Other, be they indigenous Australians or Chinese immigrants) that led him to appreciate the hybrid, mongrel character of our continent: an island immensity, long enlivened by human hands but also vulnerable to outside intervention.

Although Rolls was concerned in his writing to hymn the peculiar wonders of the Australian landscape, his closest literary peers are overseas: Wendell Berry, the essayist and farmer-poet from Kentucky; east-coast American nature writer Annie Dillard, whose nature writing is animated by the spirit of Henry Thoreau; and Briton Roger Deakin, whose eccentric volumes on subjects as various as wild swimming and wood-lovers inspired a younger generation of Anglo nature writers, including Robert Macfarlane, author of Mountains of the Mind (2003) and Wild Places (2007).

It was in Macfarlane’s recent series of essays in the Guardian that we find the most eloquent defence of non-urban writing:

We live, as John Fowles wrote in 1970, in the era of ‘the plastic garden, the steel city, the chemical countryside’. We live in an era, too, when it has become in the interest of powerful commercial forces to erase the particularity of place, and to suppress the local distinctiveness of what little landscape has survived modernity’s onslaught.

Macfarlane is concerned that, having successfully divorced individuals from rural land or wild places, powerful entities are free to exploit them in any way that maximises profit (surely, in the midst of a vast mining boom, this is even truer for us). The reconnection of people with a particular place, based on the recovery of concrete, practical knowledge about its unique character is, then, crucial to that place’s survival:

How, though, is it possible to regain such ‘concrete knowledge’? How is it possible to restore particularity to place, to provoke intimacy, or a sense of what is remarkable in a stretch of land? To come to know a place – its textures, its species, its interplay of scape and space, the archive of its weathers, the wind-history of its trees – is long work. Not all places can be known by all people in such a way.

The answer is literature that attends to place. We need books that record the life-data listed above; that notate a region’s legends and lore. We should cast an anthropological eye over texts in which men and women grapple with the challenges of rural life and throw a poet’s gaze at works whose attention to detail quickens a world into life. Most of all we need stories that inspire complicity with place, not provoke alienation from it. Stories that overflow boundaries of genre, milieu and our narrow literary stoushes, and seek instead what Macfarlane called ‘our common ground’.

Portrait of Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson

His reviews and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals both here and in Britain, and he is a regular presence on ABC radio.

Geordie studied law and English literature at the University of Sydney and University College London. He spent half a decade in the UK selling rare books and manuscripts before returning to Australia.

Geordie now lives in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney with his family. His book about neglected Australian authors, The Burning Library, is published by Text in October 2012.

Further reading

The Miles Franklin Literary Award

Listen to Patrick Allington on definitions of ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.

Read Michael Williams on the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist and what makes a novel ‘Australian’.

Stephen Romei reports on the Miles shortlisted authors' response to the controversy over the all-male shortlist at his blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws.

On Australian rural writing

Novelist Carrie Tiffany defends Australian rural writing in a Sydney Morning Herald interview by Susan Wyndham.

Jennifer Mills, author of Gone, writes in response to the Miles Franklin debate about Australian writing and ‘the rural Australian voice’.

Jeremy Chambers' The Vintage and the Gleaning

Kevin Rabalais interviews Jeremy Chambers about The Vintage and the Gleaning in the Australian.

When Colts Ran by Roger McDonald

Geordie Williamson reviews When Colts Ran in the Australian.

You can listen to or read Patricia Maunder’s review of When Colts Ran on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.

James Ley reviews When Colts Ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance

Morag Fraser reviews That Deadman’s Dance for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Patrick Allington reviews That Deadman’s Dance for Australian Book Review.

Eric Rolls' A Million Wild Acres

Les Murray reflects on A Million Wild Acres on the Meanjin website.

Listen to Michael Cathcart talk to Tom Griffiths about the impact of A Million Wild Acres on ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph.

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