AWW Gen 4: Postmodern?

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

AWW Gen 4 is (Australian women) writers who were first published in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I have written elsewhere that the changeover from Gen 3 was marked by the end, in Australia, of a white, Anglo monoculture – where our major ‘other’ was the large Irish Catholic, largely working class, minority. Gen 4, then, begins with waves of ‘Mediterranean’ immigration, from Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Lebanon; the ‘youth culture’ of the sixties; Womens Lib; Civil Rights; a release from the sexual constraints of the 1950s; much greater access to tertiary education, and indeed to late secondary education; and a widely shared prosperity which, by the end of the eighties had crashed headlong into the neo-liberalism of Regan and Thatcher (and of Keating and Howard), though it was another couple of decades before we began to recognise what we had lost.

I have a problem in that I enjoy reading Lit. Theory but very little of it sticks. There is no doubt though that at the beginning of the period, the majority of writers were still working in the Modernist tradition (see last year’s Late Modernity), and that the ideas of Postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism being explored overseas, were both poorly understood and only slowly taken up.

Clearly postmodern works like Thomas Keneally’s A Dutiful Daughter and David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, both 1971, were beacons in a sea of conventionality.

Keneally, (Bethany’s Book) and probably every other author at least once, pissfarted around with the idea of conflating the book being read and the author of the book being read with the book and author being written about (which Miles Franklin did earlier and better in My Career Goes Bung); and my feelings about Peter Carey’s taking up of the fashion of Magic Realism, beginning with Illywhacker (1985) don’t bear repeating.

Putting the author into the work always seemed to me to be a straight riposte to the ‘Death of the Author’, and pointless after it had been done once; MR was a fashion that worked when used sparingly but soon became every aspiring author’s new toy. If you want more, the ALS Journal has an interesting review of Maria Takolander’s Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (2007)*.

Other aspects under the postmodern umbrella are irony, unreliability, commercialism, pop culture. Modernism was a serious project to understand the nature of writing and of the self; without the politics of feminism and post-colonialism, postmodernism is largely a cop out, promoted by the left and taken up joyously by the right as cover for their aversion to truth telling.

The first writer in our Gen 4, in more than one sense, is Thea Astley, whose first work, Girl with a Monkey, came out in 1958. Leigh Dale says that while Astley’s fiction is post-colonial in that much of it is concerned with the consequences of the colonisation of Australia, and particularly of course, Queensland –

Astley’s novels have a tendency to reject the recuperation of resistance that has been the major task of much post-colonial literary and cultural criticism, and to emphasise both the devastation caused by colonialism on indigenous populations, and the lasting refusal of colonial regimes to recognise the causes or effects of that devastation.

This is understandable, both because she is a pioneer in the recognition of the violence done to Indigenous peoples, and because “the recuperation of resistance”, establishing that the Indigenous were more than just victims, is the task, in the first place, of Indigenous writers.

Astley was an innovator in her subject matter, but in her writing she was concerned to write in the Modernist tradition, seeking reassurance from Patrick White, and most similar probably in the denseness and precision of her writing to her contemporary Randolph Stow. Still, I noted in my recent review of Astley’s Reaching Tin River (1990) that Astley had clearly, over time, absorbed some of the tropes of postmodernism, playfulness say, allowing two characters 70 years in time apart, to be in some way aware of each other.

Two other AWW Gen 4 writers I’ve reviewed this year are Sara Dowse and Carmel Bird. Bird was the recipient of the 2016 Patrick White Award. The judges wrote: “Using elements of the Gothic, fantasy and fairy tale as easily as realism, Bird can be surreal, quirky and macabre, but also humorous, humane and warm.” I struggled with the postmodernism of The Bluebird Café (1990) but that might have been just me. I gave Milly Bird’s The Family Skeleton (2016) for xmas. How that will go I cannot say.

Dowse I’ve run into a couple of times in the newspapers. In reviews of work by Australian poet Kate Jennings, and US feminist Shiela Rowbotham, Dowse revisits her own time as an activist in the sixties and seventies. In the period covered by West Block (1975-76) Dowse is already bogged down attempting to get women’s policies past an unfriendly (Fraser/Liberal) government. But there was a time of hope before that.

[Kate Jennings’] Trouble has brought it back: the demos, the passion, the laughs, the daring. Subtitled Evolution of a Radical, the book is a selection of Jennings’s writing from 1970 to 2010. The first entry is the raw, spitting speech Jennings hurled at a 1970 Vietnam moratorium rally on the front lawn of Sydney University – the opening salvo of Women’s Liberation in Australia. Did we actually speak like that?

That day, at that moment, I was 850 kms down the road, with the Melb Uni contingent listening to similar speeches in Treasury Gardens prior to the March – 100,000 people or more, all the length of Bourke St. What a day!

My first review for the Week will be Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977). The women’s movement for Garner’s Nora is already just a hum in the background, women living co-operatively, but still seemingly at the beck and call of men.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this period, the beginning of adulthood for many of us, appears to you. And please, let me know in Comments what you hope to read (and review!).

.

References:
Leigh Dale, Colonial History and Post Colonial Fiction: The Writing of Thea Astley, Australian Literary Studies, 1 May 1999 (here)
Karen Lamb, “Yrs Patrick”, Southerly, Vol 72.1 2012
Sara Dowse, Trouble, Age, Melbourne, 23 April 2010
Sara Dowse, Days of Hope, Inside Story, 17 December 2021 (here)


“Maria Takolander’s ambitious project, Catching Butterlies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground, seeks to clear up the confusion surrounding the literary term ‘magical realism’, an oxymoron which Takolander says has become ‘a dumping ground for the convenient disposal of any fiction that deviates from or experiments with the rules of realism’ …

Takolander goes on to argue that using MR to represent the spirit lives underlying Indigenous cultures is necessarily inauthentic. The reviewer (and I) disagree:

“However, rather than suggesting that reality itself does not exist, [non-European authors] propose that there are other ways of experiencing it. Such magical realist authors recognise and expose the cultural clashes, merges and changes in postcolonial situations, and express it through magical realism. Such works are not, or not necessarily, ‘inauthentic’ because they present twentieth-century versions of indigenous cultures.

Tanja Schwalm, Review of Maria Takolander, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (2007) in Australian Literary Studies, 1 June 2009.

54 thoughts on “AWW Gen 4: Postmodern?

  1. Great intro Bill … that I will have to cogitate a bit on. Like you I get a bit bogged down in theory and prefer to just read, thinking about the political and social context of the time of writing, and not so much the literary theory though I knew there can be some overlap – modernism being partly a response to the bleakness of early to mid-20th century life, and post-colonial to all the questioning of “truth” and “authenticity” that came after. Anyhow, I probably won’t take much of that on board in my posts, but we’ll see.

    I will try to dedicate a Monday Musings to the week and perhaps take a personal look at the Women’s liberation thing as you suggested. Still thinking about that.

    I have a little bundle of books to read, but am not sure what I’ll get to. My reading group, at my suggestion, is doing an Amy Witting this month, though my post will be after your week is officially over. And, I am currently reading one of the more forgotten writers, Margaret Barbalet, because she’s been on my TBR for yonks and this is a great opportunity to read it.

    BTW 1. I love that you gave Family skeleton to Milly. I’d love to hear what she things.
    BTW 2. It would be great if you could provide links to the online sources you use, like the Inside Story one.
    BTW 3. Girl with a monkey mailed last Friday.

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    • I look forward to whatever you do, thank you Sue. And I’m happy for reviews to come in late, any time. I’ll give them a mention and add them to the page.

      Not sure Milly is enthused about Family Skeleton, but if she doesn’t read it I will.
      I’ve added a couple of links. Sara Dowse must have something in every issue of Inside Story. My problem is I see an interesting essay and download it and quite often the download doesn’t contain publication details.
      I look forward to it arriving.

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      • That’s great, thanks.

        Family skeleton is odd – after all it has a skeleton as a narrator – but I love Carmel Bird’s cheekiness. The way her mind works is just so lateral, so interesting, but also so fundamentally based in an understanding of human beings.

        Just google the article (inside story plus the authors name and a word or two from the article title) when you are doing the post and you should find it easily. It’s weird how some downloads bring the URL and some don’t. I’ve noticed that too. My post tonight draws from a The Conversation article.

        Let’s hope it arrives more straightforwardly than my last despatch!

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      • My biggest problem is when I’ve been reading criticism and then I start to write, I have to look in every essay I’ve read for the bit I want to quote. One essay I was searching for all over the net was right under my nose in a 10 year old Southerly buried under papers on my desk.

        Still no work. January’s hopeless (and there’s no driver shortage in WA because we’re not next door to NSW) so I got stuck into adding reviews to the Gen 4 Page.

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  2. A very interesting post. I had to read loads of lit theory at university in 1989-92 and really hated it – in fact I originally espoused Death of the Author because you could get away with just doing your own reaction to the book and not reading secondary texts … though I do actually properly espouse it now. I had to go to the lit theory stuff for that when researching my book on Iris Murdoch and only got so far back before I became befuddled …

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    • I studied Lit.Theory about a decade after you and like you was taken the death of the author, but I’ve mellowed in the 20 years since. I certainly don’t agree with the author’s ‘intention’, nor with the fawning interviews with authors we’ve come to expect. What I do think though is that the author’s background is critical to any reading of the text – I no longer believe the text stands alone.

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      • My theory – in case you are interested, in fact it’s my (probably boring) theory for life – is moderation in all things! Seriously though, I don’t like black-and-white, all-this or all-that approaches to much. Life and humans are far too complex, and so are the things we create.

        So, I think it’s always worth knowing a bit about the author’s background if you can, that the author’s intention can be useful to know (though working out what “I” think is the intention is more important), and that author interviews can be interesting, even useful. BUT, in the end, it all depends on the work and the author. In the end though, the text is the critical thing. Reading theory in general makes my eyes glaze over.

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      • You know I don’t do moderation, Sue. Especially opinions. Take a stand, generate a reaction. That’s my motto. The author’s intention is interesting, but in the end the work either conveys the intention or it doesn’t, it’s no good the author saying but I meant you to read it this way not that. Then again, if we read the author’s statement of intention first, then that becomes part of the intertext through which we read the work (the moral being don’t read the author’s statement first).

        The text is sort of the thing, but in the end it’s just a frail barque in a sea of other text. What makes my eyes glaze over is academics concealing their ignorance with jargon.

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  3. I truly enjoy literary theory because there are so many modes that you can use to explore a text. It’s just a lens through which one experiences a book, and if you’re thinking ahead, you can choose one BEFORE you read the book so that you’re looking for bits and bobs that match up with the theory. Whether it’s feminist or Marxist, deconstruction or archetypal, it’s all theory. I noticed a few people commented that they don’t think about theory or the author, they think about the historical time people. That’s a literary theory! Even thinking about who the author is and then reading the book is a form of lit theory. To do the opposite, to know nothing about the author, is also a form of lit theory. Oh boy, you found my nerd button, lol.

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    • Nerd is just a way of denigrating people who are interested in stuff that doesn’t involve running after balls (or after sexual congress, I guess). I enjoy Lit Theory too and I don’t think my Generations make any sense unless you have a general idea about how the writing differs from one period to the next. I wish it were all in one text book that I could just quote from, instead of an accumulation of essays I have to a) find, and b) make sense of. But yes, I know, I’d probably get into an argument with the text book.

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    • Haha, very well said Melanie. Even no theory is theory! True, and I love it. Basically I agree with you, horses for courses – how you read one work, through what lens, can (even should?) be ver different to how you read another. The only rule is that there should not be A rule – unless this is the rule!

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      • I was hoping you’d read my comment! 😀

        Because I studied all this stuff in college, I always had the approach of pick a theory and THEN read the work through that lens. I have a much harder time reading a book and then pondering which theory I should use. I want read THROUGH the lens, not force it afterward. I still have my textbook on this and longingly think of re-reading bits and bobs over time.

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      • Love it Melanie. That’s an interesting approach, and I can see how it would work, but how do you decide which theory might be most applicable.

        I usually subscribe to comments and try to engage in conversations I’ve been interested in.

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      • Often, I would pick a theory I was interested in knowing more about to see how I could make it work in the book. The fun part about theory is the way you apply it needs some flexible explanations. Deconstructionism is so wild.

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      • I would have to think about do I approach a book with a particular theory in mind. Perhaps I do, since I nearly always am asking Is this your story to tell?
        Sue, you, Melanie and Lisa are certainly engaged in conversation! Thank you, it adds a great deal to what I was trying to say.

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      • It’s fun and interesting Bill. I love honing my thoughts about reading and books like this.

        As usual, I’m more wishy-washy, which some times means I’m so over-the-place I miss something critical but other times it means I’m open enough to pick up something critical.

        As you know I’m sympathetic to “is this your story to tell” but also feel it can be applied too inflexibly.

        I think the most frequent question in my mind as I read is What’s going on here?

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      • I think Deconstruction has seeped into mainstream reviewing, a bit anyway. That is, reviewers will question what is behind what the author is saying. But I don’t think I have thought about it in any formal way for more than a decade. Maybe Melanie with her professor hat on could give a class (It appears to me that you Deconstruct fat fiction).

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  4. Never studied literary theory or English lit or the arts so I find this fascinating…

    I have quite a sizeable stack of novels by authors from Gen 4 including Grenville, Astley, Jolley and Garner… it’s just a matter of deciding which one/s to read according to my mood at the time.

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    • I’m glad you find it interesting. I like thinking about why one book is like or not like another book, the common threads they share and how those threads change over time. My original study was on how we use books to hone our definition(s) of ourselves as Australian, and I have drifted away from that in Gen 4.

      I look forward to whatever you come up with (in a week’s time!).

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  5. I am up to my ears in Lit Theory at the moment: I signed up for an online UniMelb course about Gerald Murnane and his Precursors, knowing that I would be out of my depth, but I don’t care, I can hold my own when it comes to having actually read Murnane and what I understand of it is fascinating, and maybe when I’ve read the plethora of background documents I will understand even more.
    I may even one day be able to explain why Amy Witting’s The Visit is an example of Metatextuality or Hypertextuality but not Architextuality — but LOL only over a congenial f2f glass or red or two when C-19 permits, because I don’t want to scare away my readers…

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      • Ah well… we’ve read an essay about Kafka and his precursors (with Murnanian resonances that seemed obvious to me from Kierkegaard’s parables, and Zeno’s Paradox, but not fables from Han Yu who I’d never heard of, and then moved on to the poetry of Emily Bronte and her fictional world of Gondal (which grew out of the fictional world of Glass Town that she created with Bramwell et al).
        GM is not the only writer to create his own worlds, Tolkien is the obvious example of that, so I will be interested to see where we go from there and why Gandal is so important. (I suspect it’s a PhD!)
        I have heaps of reading to do, to keep up with the bright young minds doing this course with me…

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      • Even more good for you Lisa … I don’t think I have the energy for that level of reading right now. I hope you do a wee post on main points you learnt? How great that there are young minds interested.

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      • Uh, I’m a bit intimidated at the moment, and wary of (a) making a fool of myself and (b) driving away my readers. As it says somewhere in my review policy, I aim to deliver something between academic analysis and gee-i-loved-this-book gushing. If anything ends up on my blog it will be within a review of something by Murnane, I still have Barley Patch on the TBR!

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      • Fair enough, but re (b) you are allowed to vary your tone/style a bit every now and then. They are not good readers if they can’t tolerate a bit of exploration. Still I know what you mean and Barley Patch is a good option!

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    • See, my course didn’t teach me any jargon at all. How was I meant to pass myself off as literate?
      Does the course agree with that book of Murnane’s you just read about who his precursors were. I’ve never even wondered. Patrick White, probably like every one of his era, wished to be James Joyce, but in reality followed on from DH Lawrence.
      I have an Amy Witting somewhere, I should give it a (non-theoretical) read.

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      • Both my degrees in English pre-dated the Isms, so I just learned to read books and love them, and I finished up with a grasp of the development of the English novel, #LuckyMe just stopping short of postmodernism.
        But of course everything follows on from something before it, Which probably means you can claim anything about anything and get away with it….

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  6. I know very little about lit theory and unlike many (most?) book bloggers I have no academic background in English or literature. However, I really these posts, which continue to expand my knowledge on the topic, and the insightful discussion in the comments (even if I can’t contribute much to it)! Looking forward to reading people’s posts for this Generation.

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    • Very few bloggers anyway approach their reviews from a lit theory angle, whether they’ve studied it or not (back when they were 18 or 19) but it suits me to discuss generations from that POV, using whatever I can dredge up from memory, text books and essays.
      I think Gen 4 week will be relatively quiet. I haven’t lined up a guest ‘specialist’ this time, but there should be something most days.

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  7. My university days were well before anything like literary theory reared its head. By the time I embarked on my second degree (glutton for punishment) that had changed so much you could hardly read anything without reference to marxist/feminist/post colonial critiques. Some did cast the selected texts in new lights but some were frankly garbage (usually the post colonial ones).
    As for magical realism, I try hard to avoid that which is pretty difficult if you want to read anything by south American authors.

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    • We’ll have to agree to differ Karen, though on the basis of limited knowledge on my side anyway. I think post-colonialism is an important approach to literature, as people in post-colonial situations make their voices heard, and as we, whites/westerners/whatever, come to terms with how our prosperity is built on past and present oppression. (And yes I think you must at least discuss Jane Austen’s failure to recognise that the prosperity of sugar plantations came from slavery).

      MR is so often often misused that I wonder that it is still even attempted. BUT. What I have read of South American MR I have found innovative, and I totally support its use by African and Indigenous writers as a way of illustrating the prevalence of an ongoing belief in the spirit world.
      In my next review (posted last night) MR is used very playfully. I wonder what you’ll say.

      BTW I agree about those early university years. I studied Philosophy in 1971 without learning there was any such thing as postmodernism or any other post.

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  8. Which reminds me, you had SEVEN Canadian writers on your list for 2021 and I only managed two Australians: I do have some catching up to do, don’t I?! (Largely because my climate crisis research was nearly all Canadian, Indigenous, with some U.S., and one European, I think, and it compromised such a chunk of my year….but I know that just sounds like an excuse. LOL)

    Thank you for a great intro; I still struggle with a lot of those literary terms that don’t come naturally. I did take some English classes, but it felt like each prof had their own speciality and focus, so some of the basic underpinnings were assumed and another slant took hold.

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    • I should have at least SIX again, if my project goes to plan. But we don’t demand parity, just your ongoing interest in our posts. And if Sue reads four, should you then have to read ten? Or will there be some double counting going on here. Anyway you’ve agreed to read at least four books just to contribute to ventures of mine, so anything else will be a bonus. When will we read Dhalgren do you think? 2025?
      I live in fear that an English professor will read one of my posts and cross everything out, but I have a go, someone has to, and I like thinking about what’s going on as trends in writing change.

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  9. A thousand apologies Bill, I have fallen behind in my reading and blogging plans already and the year is only 3 weeks old!
    But I am in the process of a Shirley Hazzard post which I hope to finish by the end of the week…..

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  10. I’m slowly coming back to the blogosphere since the holidays… I mentioned to Marcie that The Spare Room came in for me at the library but I couldn’t remember why I had requested it! Marcie kindly suggested it might be for your event this week, which of course it is! I noticed, though, that The Spare Room wasn’t published until 2008 – does that still count for Gen 4? (It was the only Helen Garner we had.)

    Your post and the comments are all so interesting, but, like a couple of others, I have never studied any kind of literary theory so will content myself with learning rather than contributing. 🙂

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    • Yes, the Spare Room counts! The definition 1970s,80s,90s is just for when the writer got started. Re-reading Monkey Grip, Garner’s first, I could see all Garner’s later concerns in microcosm. So between us we’ll give readers a good overview of Garner’s fiction.
      My M Litt supervisor would be horrified to think other readers were getting their postmodernism theory from me, so I just try and point out the sort of things you might look out for.

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