Atwood, Le Guin & SF

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

One book has captured the spirit of present and near-future USA like no other, and that is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (1985). On writing ‘1985’ I am astonished that it is so old, obviously America has been growing into Atwood’s predictions for some time. The TV series of the book premiered in 2016, and the sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019.

A Handmaid’s Tale sits over us, over all discussions of the rise of the Right in the US in particular, as Animal Farm, 1984 and Brave New World did over discussions of Communism and totalitarian government – not always accurately – when I was a young man (in the 1960s and 70s).

Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) and Margaret Atwood (1939- ) were friends, east coast gals with a university – Radcliffe “in the pre-Second Wave years” – in common.

Seated on little divans in front of over 2,000 people [in Portland, 2010], they seemed like two old school chums swapping gossip even when they were deconstructing modern realism and debating whether or not the human race is doomed.

Claire L. Evans — Space Canon, Gizmodo, September 28, 2010

Le Guin, the queen of SF, however is forced to tiptoe round Atwood’s refusal to acknowledge that she writes Science Fiction. Atwood argues science fiction is for space travel and things we can’t yet do, while what she does is speculative fiction, stuff that we have the means to do right now, right here on Earth (Moving Targets).

That is to say, she – and these days any number of writers of “dystopian” fiction – choose to write within one strand of SF, which has a history going back more than a century, while disclaiming all their antecedents and preserving, in their own minds anyway, their literary purity.

In her summary of the two writers’ discussion, Evans offers this breakdown: “could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

If you’re still one of those who cling to the myth that there is ‘literary’ fiction and there is genre fiction, Le Guin was fierce that “realism is a genre like any other, and that all writing is by definition literary“. Further, “realism is limited in terms of what it can actually discuss. The modern realistic novel, she lamented, has devolved into tales of well-off East Coast people with problems” which might come as a shock to writers in the rest of the world. Atwood and Le Guin did agree that “speculative and not-quite-real fictions have more freedom to tackle sweeping subjects unavailable to the realist.”

Le Guin’s strongest critique of Atwood was a year earlier, in a review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009).

To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction.

Le Guin, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009

Le Guin makes the point that in ‘realistic’ fiction we expect characters of some complexity, while in genre fiction we expect ‘types’, though “the supposed distinction is so often violated in both directions as to be nearly meaningless”. She then goes on to explain why all Atwood’s characters are ‘types’, “these were figures in the service of a morality play”. Le Guin does not say, but it’s true, that one of the great strengths of her own Science Fiction is the complexity of her central characters.

A year after Portland Arts & Lectures 2010 Atwood defends herself at some length:

Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Atwood, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011

There she goes again, distinguishing one branch of SF from another, and then attempting to claim the branch she likes as anything but SF. In one hundred years time when Earth’s remnant population is living on Mars will she move The Martian Chronicles over to her side of the ledger? At what stage does The Postman change sides, or Neuromancer, or The Matrix? If the US somehow doesn’t become a fascist theocracy after these midterms or 2024, does A Handmaid’s Tale then become SF in Atwood’s mind?

Basically, she says I write in the tradition that extends forward from Jules Verne. I just don’t wish it to be called SF. Sorry, MA, you don’t get to choose.

And because I am a Le Guin fan, let me end with something Atwood wrote on Le Guin’s death in 2018

Not only was she one of the literary greats of the 20th century – her books are many and widely read and beloved, her awards are many and deserved – but her sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent voice is much needed now…

Isn’t it, just? And, Atwood goes on ..

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing ..

Atwood writes from a different angle, but in her ‘speculative’ works she is clearly asking the same question. Atwood and Le Guin, two greats of SF.

This post is both a lead in to the problems of defining ‘dystopian’ (no, no, no, not SF) fiction in AWW Gen 5, and my contribution to Marcie/Buried in Print’s MARM 2022.

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Image:
Portland Arts & Lectures 2010: Margaret Atwood & Ursula K Le Guin, reported in Cultural SF and Movie Learnings, 30.09.2010 (here). Literary Arts recording (here)

Essays referenced:
Claire L. Evans, ‘Space Canon’, Gizmodo, 28 Sept., 2010 (here)
Ursula K Le Guin, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009 (here)
Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin bring off-the-wall humor to Portland Arts & Lectures, the Oregonian (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘The Road to Ustopia’, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011 (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘Ursula K. Le Guin’, Guardian, 25 Jan., 2018 (here)

Miles Franklin in America

Miles Franklin lived and worked in the US from 1906 to 1915, from ages 27 to 36. If she was ever going to get married this was the time. When she left Australia she was probably engaged to her cousin Edwin Bridle – going by his letters he certainly believed so – and her feeling of being trapped is probably one of her motivations for going.

On the ship over to San Francisco and on her travels through California, Nevada, Colorado, until finally coming to a stop in Chicago, she no doubt flirted furiously, she always flirted furiously, and received a number of proposals of marriage, not least from a circus strongman who wanted her to run away with him.

In Chicago, Franklin was employed by and mixed in the society of upper class women supporting suffragism and working women’s sometimes violent struggle against their employers. But she found time for night school, opera and dining out. For a while she was dating two playboy brothers, one of them married, plus another man, inevitably called ‘Fred’, all three apparently willing to marry her.

She wrote one time that if she married it would only be “to satisfy curiosity”; and another time that virtuous women could behave outrageously because they knew in their hearts they were pure. In the one novel of hers we have from the US years, On Dearborn Street, Franklin concludes that marriage, for her anyway, can only be with a man whom she is sure is also ‘pure’. Inevitably she remained single.

At some level, all of the books Franklin wrote up until she was about 40 are about the tension between “satisfying curiosity” and retaining her independence.

My post this month in the AWWC is more about Franklin’s work than her love life, but I hope you read on anyway …

AWWC: Miles Franklin in America
AWWC: Miles Franklin, The Old Post (short story)

AWW Gen 5 – SFF

Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

AWW Gen 5 is the generation of women who began writing in the 1990s up till now. It is, or I find it to be, difficult to pin down the characteristics of this current generation, but two trends stand out: the rise and rise of Indigenous Lit; and the amount of writing which in earlier days would have clearly been SF – but which now is generally characterised as Climate Fic., Dystopian, or less frequently, Fantasy/Surreal/Postmodern.

Women’s Indig.Lit does deserve an overview, especially the world class writing of Alexis Wright, surely our next Nobel laureate, but there are Indigenous women writing in the climate/dystopian stream, which for the sake of brevity I will deem SFF, so for AWW Gen 5 Week 2023 let’s start there.

Of course our Canadian friends will argue that this stream can only be discussed with reference to Margaret Atwood’s “not SF” The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its sequel, The Testaments (2019). But Atwood’s implied claims that she invented dystopian fiction, or even just its American religious subset, or was the first person to bring dystopian writing into Literature, are all easily disprovable

This arbitrarily restrictive definition [not science fiction] seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

Ursula Le Guin talking about Atwood, 2010

Don’t mention SF seems to be the model preferred also by most Australian women (or their publishers), though Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G Coleman, at least, is clear about where she is coming from.

Following is a list of AWW Gen 5 – SFF works I have read/reviewed to date:

Georgia Blain, Special (2016)
Claire G Coleman, Terra Nullius (2017)
Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie (2019)
Claire G Coleman, Enclave (2022)
Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall (2019)
Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost (2007)
Linda Jaivan, Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996)
Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace (2017)
Krissy Kneen, Wintering (2018)
Rosaleen Love, The Total Devotion Machine and other stories (1989)
Catherine McKinnon, Storyland (2017)
Sue Parritt, Pia and the Skyman (2016)
Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013)
Jane Rawson, Formaldehyde (2015)
Jane Rawson, From the Wreck (2017)
Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams (2022)
Elizabeth Tan, Rubik (2017)
Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People (2020)
Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light/Water (2014)
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (2015)
Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (2006)
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (2013)

In making this list and looking over my shelves for works I might have missed, I see that I have passed over Australian Grunge which was a distinctive part of 1990s writing at least and which may in fact have been a precursor to the dystopian trend of the 2000s. So Justine Ettler misses out; Linda Jaivin is in, for one of her minor works; Fiona McGregor, who is often mentioned in this connection, I don’t know at all; and Nikki Gemmell, whom I would like to write about at length, is also out. And Heather Rose too, despite The Museum of Modern Love being one of our great books.

I have also reviewed a couple of YA-ish books which have a grungy feel and which I would like to have discussed again in the context of Gen 5 – Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island and Madeleine Ryan, A Room Called Earth, but I can’t see any way of squeezing them into SFF.

I hope I’ve chosen a theme which you will find engaging – I’m not sure where we’ll take AWW Gen x Week after this – and I really hope you can add more/make a case for the inclusion of works I have forgotten/excluded. As usual, over the course of the Week I will attempt to post one review a day – a couple of my own, a guest maybe, and reposts of yours.

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Pic. above: Anmatyerre woman, Bronwyn Payne Ngale (1970- ) holding ‘Antyarlkenth [native tuber] story’, 2008

Autofiction

Don’t worry, this is not a lesson, I just want to think out loud a bit about why fiction which may or may not be a direct transcribing of the author’s journals is my favourite type of writing. My starting point will be Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I have just read – or re-reread, a lot of the situations seemed familiar – but where will we go from there? Rooney’s other works, An I-Novel, Miles Franklin, Eve Langley, Jane Austen (why not?).

Even before going on I realise I’ve left out Justine Ettler and her discomfort with the reception of The River Ophelia, paralleling Franklin’s discomfort with the reception of My Brilliant Career 90 odd years earlier, and with the same consequence. Sales were suspended.

Let’s say autofiction is a work where the author bases her – I seem to have only offered female examples – protagonist on herself but puts her in situations which the reader cannot know are real or fictional. By all means improve or dispute my definition, but that is where I’m starting.

The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compound

New York literary critic Christian Lorentzen, 2018 (Wiki)

And the reason I like autofiction so much is: writers whose objective is to be writers don’t bother with too much story-telling, they just put themselves on the page with all the skill they can muster; the protagonist subjects herself to intense introspection; the writer is writing what she knows, no energy is spent on invention (where this leaves my other love, Science Fiction is a question for another day).

Sally Rooney (1991- ) has now released three works: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), Beautiful World, Where are You (2021). In Conversations Rooney takes her third year at uni (Trinity College, Dublin) and explores friendship, sex and love through the protagonist, Frances, her friend and lover, Bobbi, and an affair with the married, older actor Nick. I’m guessing she uses an ‘affair’ because she wishes to avoid the clumsiness of young love/first sex, though this is the first time Frances has had sex with a man.

Normal People I’ve lent to someone, my daughter probably, but basically Rooney offers an alternative coming-of-age (to Conversations), starting at the end of high school with Marianne and Connell, taking them to Trinity College, and then taking Marianne through some masochistic relationships without ever losing sight of Connell. One day a literary biography well tell us (or my grandchildren more likely) what truths, or not, this is based on.

Beautiful World, Where are You reads like a transcription of Rooney’s diary now she is a wildly successful writer, though no doubt she has just taken her present position and around that woven four different ways of dealing with being 30.

Minae Mizumura (1951- ) is a Japanese-American writer whose An I-Novel (1995) is mostly the thirtyish Minae and her sister Nanae talking on the phone about their life in America wishing they were in Japan. The I-novel is a Japanese form of autofiction dating back at least to the early 1900s. Of the novelists I’ve named only Mizumura and Justine Ettler used their own names for their protagonists, which for some (not me) is a necessary part of autofiction.

Justine Ettler (1965- ) wrote Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996) and then The River Ophelia (1995), though you can see they were published in reverse order. Marilyn is a straight autofiction first novel, but The River Ophelia is an astonishing exploration of Justine’s subjection to sadism. Ettler became so upset about the assumption that it was autobiography that she stopped both books being sold (see my interview with her).

Miles Franklin (1879-1954) wrote My Brilliant Career (1901) when she was a teenager, probably writing chapters and reading them out to amuse her friends as she describes in her subsequent works. Sybylla is Miles and Possum Gully is Thornford, the small farming community near Canberra (then a village) where she grew up, but the story is just a story, or sequence of stories, as Miles who was very prudish, imagines ‘love’ or more often the disagreeableness of ‘love’, and caricatures her family and fellows without thought for their reactions on seeing themselves in print.

Following MBC’s success, at least with everyone who didn’t know her, Miles wrote two follow-ups, The End of My Career (1902) and On the Outside Track (1903) both re-presenting the same ‘facts’ but framing MBC as a spoof autobiography written by a fictional author who just happened to have the same name, Sybylla Melvyn, as the protagonist of the new work. Very postmodern when Modernism had hardly got under way. Sadly, both were refused publication, and so Miles withdrew MBC from sale “until ten years after her death”.

The End was subsequently revised and published as My Career Goes Bung (1946) – more in my next post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge (13 Apr.) – and On the Outside Track was re-written as Cockatoos (1954), the best of her autobiographical works in my opinion, to fit in with the Brent of Bin Bin series (which is based on generations of Miles’ mother’s family).

Eve Langley (1904-1974), probably the most lyrical Australian author ever, wished to live in the Bush as a character out of a Henry Lawson story, and so she and her sister ‘Blue’ famously adopted men’s clothing and went out into eastern Victoria as itinerant farm workers. Eve kept a journal for every year and when, in dire straits in New Zealand during WWII she heard of the upcoming Prior Prize she wrote up her first journal as a novel, The Pea Pickers (1942), the story of a woman wanting the love of a man but determined to preserve her independence. One of Australia’s great novels won one third of first place, £100, promptly spent by her husband.

Her second journal became White Topee (1954) and the New Zealand journals (no.s 6 -12) were edited down by Lucy Frost from about 3,000pp to the 300 page and tremendously sad Wilde Eve (1999).

Ok, we’re nearly at the end and it’s reading a bit (a lot) like a lesson. Sorry. Let’s consider Jane Austen (1775-1817). I’ve loved Austen’s writing all my adult life. She doesn’t exactly write autofiction, and her works, brilliantly written of course, are not introspective. But I suspect that her first work, Love and Freindship, and also Sense and Sensibility, arose out of her time at boarding school, 1785-86. Silly girls telling each other stories of ‘love’. Pride and Prejudice is clearly Jane and (older sister) Cassandra given the romances that life (or their own preferences) denied them; the Austen parents lampooned affectionately as Mr and Mrs Bennet, and love sought, found, withdrawn etc. Then as Jane matures so do her heroines.

Re-reading, as you must when you’re your own editor and proofreader, suggests this conclusion: that earlier and many current writers, eg. Rooney, base characters on themselves, but that autofiction is the self-conscious placing of a character representing the author into a fictional setting, resulting in a close interrogation of the author’s character.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge

Journal: 082

I like last year’s logo, though one of my friends thinks poor Miles (it is of course Miles Franklin’s silhouette) is losing all her thoughts, or all her sense more likely, out the top of her head. We don’t have one for this year, and we are using the heading from an earlier year again. We – I say we, as I am now on the AWWC editorial team, with the site’s founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, and Sue (Whispering Gums) – will try and update the site’s appearance as we go along.

Over the past ten years they have built up a considerable database of reviews of Australian women’s writing (a lot of it contemporary of course); and also Elizabeth has been/is building an archive of out of copyright stories and novels. To complement that, I hope I can consolidate the work we have done here with AWW Gens 1 2 and 3 – which is roughly the period AWWC will cover from now on – onto the AWWC site as well.

Those of you who enjoyed the challenge of setting -and meeting – a target, may still, I hope will, post reviews on the Facebook page Love Reading Books by Aussie Women. I know, it’s not the same thrill as being mentioned in Summaries.

My reason for writing this post is to encourage conversation about the site. The reviews database needs a lot of work to make it friendlier to update and to search on. We are concentrating on the ‘magazine’ side at the moment – I think it’s looking good, don’t you – but we will definitely get back to the database side, though perhaps ‘eventually’ rather than ‘soon’.

For those of you I haven’t persuaded to subscribe, I will put up a list each month of the previous months posts.

AWWC February 2022

DateContributorTitle
Wed02Elizabeth LhuedeA new year and a new focus
Wed09Michelle Scott TuckerAustralia’s First Women Writers
Fri11ELElizabeth Fenton, The Journal of Mrs. Fenton (extract)
Wed16Bill HollowayLouisa Atkinson, Gertrude the Emigrant (review)
Fri18wadHLouisa Atkinson, Gertrude the Emigrant (extract)
Wed23Whispering GumsEarly Australian women writers, 1: Primary sources
Fri25ELLouisa Anne Meredith, Voyage out, 1839 (extract)

I’m thoroughly enjoying being part of AWWC, the to and fro as we get stuff sorted, and the contact with other bloggers as I source guest posts. I’ve always dreamed of being involved with a literary magazine and this is pretty close.

Somehow, the gaps in my real work have aligned to allow me to get well ahead with my AWWC posts and even a little ahead with posts here. Today, as I write, is Sunday. Last week I did a milk run up north, with a final delivery east of Marble Bar (Australia’s hottest town, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert), had radiator problems, got going using black pepper as ‘Bars Leak’, then broke down again almost directly outside Volvo, Port Hedland. They, despite being booked a fortnight in advance, replaced my fan, fan belt and pulleys while I waited and got me on my way home.

Yesterday, the Milly’s Moving project had me up a ladder painting; and tomorrow I will be (on Monday I was, you know what I mean) on my way again, first with a machine to Kalgoorlie and then a road train load back up past Marble Bar to Telfer.

The wet season (Summer) means roads up north are routinely under water – though not to compare at the moment with the east coast – the photo is of the Shaw River between Port Hedland and Marble Bar, and there’ll probably be a couple of more crossings between Marble Bar and Telfer.

[Weds night as I post this I am stuck in Port Hedland waiting out Cycllone Anika which is due to cross directly over Telfer, my destination, some time tomorrow.]

Just to slip in a literary reference, Ernestine Hill took a detour to Marble Bar (1932 ish), I think on her way back from Darwin to Port Hedland. Nullagine, 90 km of barely driveable dirt road south, was then the principal town of the region, and I believe Hill heard in one of Marble Bar’s many pubs about the escape of the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls back to Jigalong which came under Nullagine’s jurisdiction, and so made her way to Jigalong to meet them (The Great Australian Loneliness, 1937).

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Recent audiobooks 

Helen Garner (F, Aus/Vic), Stories (2019)
Suzanne Collins (F, USA), The Hunger Games (2008) – SF
Suzanne Collins (F, USA), Catching Fire (2009) – SF
Suzanne Collins (F, USA), Mocking Jay (2010) – SF
Claire Fuller (F, Eng), Bitter Orange (2018) – more drama than Crime

Currently Reading:

Doris Lessing (F, Eng), Shikasta (1981) – SF
Madelaine Ryan (F, Aus/Vic), A Room Called Earth (2020)

More for the TBR:

Speaking of Milly’s Moving, I took some bags of clothes to a local Anglicare and, having not been in a secondhand store since Covid, came out with 13 books, for less than the price of one new one, nearly all Virago Modern Classics. Hopefully, you can tell me where I should start.

Eliot Bliss, Saraband (1931)
F Tennyson Jesse, The Lacquer Lady (1929)
Laura Talbot, The Gentlewoman (1952)
MJ Farrell (Molly Keane), The Rising Tide (1937)
Rosamond Lehman, Invitation to the Waltz (1932)
EM Mayor, The Squire’s Daughter (1929)
EH Young, Jenny Wren (1932)
Elizabeth Jenkins, The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)
Ellen Wilkinson, Clash (1929)
Rosamond Lehman, A Note in Music (1930)
May Sinclair, The Three Sisters (1914)
Sunetra Gupta, A Sin of Colour (1999)
Hanif Kureishi, The Bhudda of Suburbia (1990)

AWW Gen 4 Roundup

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

During this week Lisa/ANZLitLovers posted a review of The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories (1991). Because of the year it came out, it contained a number of interesting and relatively unknown stories by AWW Gen 4 authors. Lisa was hopeful that there would be authors she did not know, but no such luck. However it did serve to remind me of a short story collection I reviewed a couple of years ago, The Babe is Wise: Contemporary stories by Australian women (1987).

I’ll put the table of contents down the bottom rather than here in the middle of the post, but the question Lisa has put in my mind is who are Judy Duffy, Lallie Lennon, Carolyn von Langenburg, Vicki Viidikas, Sue Chin, and a number of others? And yes there is a story from our ‘new discovery’ Margaret Barbalet. I wish now I had made this book my Gen 4 project.

We had another successful week – thankyou all for your contributions – and we began, I think, teasing out the ways in which Gen 4 is both different from and a continuation of Gen 3. Social Realism I must say seems to have come to a dead stop, probably with the works of Frank Hardy in the 60s and 70s. Or do you think there are elements of Social Realism in Monkey Grip?

Here’s all the posts for the week, including a few I did in the lead up (generously defined)

The Australian Legend
Australian Women Writers Gen 4 (here)
More Gen 4 Stuff (here)
The Bluebird Café, Carmel Bird (here)
West Block, Sara Dowse (here)
Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley (here)
AWW Gen 4: Postmodern? (here)
Monkey Grip, Helen Garner (here)
Snake Cradle, Roberta Sykes (here)

Lisa Hill/ANZLitLovers
The Visit, Amy Witting (here)
Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital (here)
Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here) plus quite a bit of background on Barbalet
The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories, Mary Lord ed. (here)
One Bright Morning, Wendy Scarfe (here)

Kimbofo/Reading Matters
The Orchard Thieves, Elizabeth Jolley (here)

Brona’s Books
Collected Stories, Shirley Hazzard (here)

Sue/Whispering Gums
Monday Musings: Reflections of a 1970s feminist (here)
Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here)
‘Epiphany in Harrower’s “The Fun of the Fair”‘ by Emily Maguire (here) [We classified Harrower Gen 3 but WG’s review of Maguire’s interesting essay straddles Generations]

Marcie McCauley/Buried in Print
Rereading Dale Spender (here)

Jessica White
The Whispering Wall, Patricia Carlon (here)

Naomi/Consumed by Ink
The Spare Room, Helen Garner (here)

All these will be listed on the AWW Gen 4 page, along with any others you let me know that you have done (don’t worry about links, just give me names so I can find them) or that you might do in the future. Over on the other side of the world I know Naomi/Consumed by Ink has just read Garner’s The Spare Room and Melanie/Grab the Lapels was not sure if she was going to read Jolley’s The Well. Would love your reviews guys. As I write, a message has flashed across my screen that Lisa has put up one more – goes to look – “Just scraping into the last day of Bill’s week” she begins, which is probably what caught my attention. Wendy Scarfe, I’ll add it now. You’re a champion, Lisa.

Next year we’ll ‘do’ AWW Gen 5, which is to say everyone who’s left. Ok, Australian women who began writing in or since the 1990s. A very important part of Gen 5 is the rise of Indigenous Lit to the leading edge of Aust.Lit generally, so that is a discussion I want to have, but without cutting across Lisa’s longstanding commitment to showcasing Indig.Lit each July (coinciding with NAIDOC Week).

The Babe is Wise: Table of Contents

My Hard HeartHelen Garner
ScarsJudy Duffy
The Plain Clothes ManLyn Hughes
A Lover of Nature and Music and ArtBarbara Hanrahan
MaralingaLallie Lennon
Whatever it TakesMeredith Michie
Brown and Green GiraffesOlga Masters
The GameJudith Woodfall
The DugongJudith Wright
IncubusMolly Guy
My Sister’s FuneralRobin Sheiner
The Test Is, If They DrownKate Grenville
Behind the GlassSue Hancock
TravellingJoan London
Hitler’s DriverCarolyn van Landenburg
Hibakusha’s DaughterFay Zwicky
The Midnight ShiftGillian Mears
Marie and SuzieMarianne Szymiczek
TongueJanet Shaw
Judith. 510 PiecesJudith Lukin
IreneGeorgia Savage
Vegetable SoupCarmel Killin
Darlinghurst PortraitVicki Viidikas
Bella DonnaMary Anne Baartz
Buttercup and WendyCarmel Bird
As Time Goes ByBeverley Farmer
In Defence of Lord ByronIlona Palmer
Write Me, Son, Write MeThea Astley
The MincerMargaret Barbalet
Scratch at the Dark SoilSue Chin
My Father’s MoonElizabeth Jolley

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!).

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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.

Best Reads 2021

Storming the Capitol. 6 Jan 2021. Photo Jason Andrew NYT

The best read of 2021 was definitely any report of the failure of Donald Tr#*mp to retain the presidency of the USA. However, I don’t have much doubt Republicans will return to power and once there will begin some years of neo-Facism (see the New York Times editorial of 1 Jan 2021 – “Every day is Jan. 6 now”).

If you want a Best (Australian Political) Read for 2021 try Bernard Keane’s Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit (I’ve read excerpts in Crikey).

Now on with books which we might actually read, or you might actually read. As usual, I read very few new releases. The best which accidentally jumped out of me at the bookshop were An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura (USA/Japan), How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson (Eng/Sweden) and Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego (Australia/Indigenous). I’m sure I’ll come across others eventually.

Fifty years back we are in AWW Gen 4 territory, though I’m afraid the best books are by guys –

1971

There were 20 novels published, 18 the previous year – those are astonishingly small numbers don’t you think – most of them unmemorable; and a couple of interesting non-fiction which I still own.

Kenneth Cook, Piper in the Market Place
Dymphna Cusack, A Bough in Hell
Geoffry Dutton & Max Harris, Sir Henry, Bjelke, Don Baby and Friends (NF)
Frank Hardy, The Outcasts of Foolgarah
Donald Horne, But What if there are no Pelicans
David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (review)
George Johnston, A Cartload of Clay (Memoir)
Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter (review)
Cynthia Nolan, Paradise, And Yet (Verse)
Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates (NF, review)
Kylie Tennant, The Man on the Headland (Memoir)
Barbara Vernon, A Big Day at Bellbird (yes, that Bellbird!)
Judah Waten, So Far No Further

1921

The number of books published is slowly picking up after the War, but at around 40, you could probably have read them all if you had to. I’ll list all the novels plus a few others.

CEW Bean, Vol I,II, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918
Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Dusk (Popular Romance)
Dulcie Deamer, Revelation
CJ Dennis, A Book for Kids (Childrens)
Mary Fullerton, Bark House Days
Agnes Gwynne, The Mistress of Windfells
Ada Holman, Sport of the Gods
Arthur Lynch, O’Rourke the Great
Mary Marlowe, Ghost Girl
Maurice Furnley, Arrows of Longing (Verse)
Bernard O’Dowd, Alma Venus! (Verse)
Ida Outhwaite, The Enchanted Forest (Childrens)
AB Paterson, Collected Verse
KS Prichard, Black Opal
Steele Rudd, We Kaytons (S/Stories)
JM (James) Walsh, Tap-Tap Island (illus. by Percy Lindsay)
Arthur Wright, Fettered by Fate

1871

Six authors for eight books, just one novel (by the author of The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn)

Marcus Clarke, Old Tales for a Young Country (S/Stories)
Henry Kingsley, The Boy in Grey
Richard Rowe, Episodes in a Obscure Life (Memoir, Goodreads)

1821

Nothing

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Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian Literature, 2nd Ed., OUP, Melbourne, 1992

Tarella down a Rabbit Hole

Journal: 079

When Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) went up to Tarella Station – north of Wilcannia in the deserts of far western NSW – in 1905 to be governess for a year, she was to find herself not the only writer sitting down to dinner each night. Tarella was owned by E. Quin, and his oldest daughter, Tarella, but universally called Ella, six years older than KSP, was already a published author.

This came up when I was reading KSP’s autobiography Child of the Hurricane but I was reminded of it more recently during a few drinks with KSP biographer Nathan Hobby, and decided to follow it up.

Searching on Trove for ‘Tarella’ brings up some references to the station (for instance, here) but searching on Ella’s pen name ‘James Adare’ brings up a number of stories published in the two or three years before KSP’s year on the station. So , for instance ‘How the Mighty are Fallen’, a funny story about a Bishop on an outback station who goes missing each evening (Queenslander, 30 Apr 1904).

KSP herself wrote a fictionalized and highly romantic account of her journey to and stay on Tarella, in the form of letters to her mother, ‘A City Girl in Central Australia’, serialized over six issues of New Idea the following year (1906). Sadly, Trove doesn’t seem to have New Idea, and the extensive AWWC story archive has no Prichard at all (She’s under copyright until 2039).

In her only mention of Ella’s writing, KSP is pretty dismissive, and there is no hint they ever compared notes. Tarella Quin subsequently had some children’s stories published plus two adult novels, A Desert Rose (1912) and Kerno: A Stone (1914),.

There was another ‘connection’ between Ella and KSP. Ella’s younger sister, Hazel was in the same year at PLC* Melbourne as Hilda Bull (and Nettie Palmer), and Hilda was KSP’s next door neighbour, best friend, and former primary school classmate. The Quin family had a second property on the edge of the Dandenongs, on the outskirts of Melbourne where they would often spend the summer – and in fact KSP returned home with them after the summer of 1904/5 – but it is not recorded that KSP knew the Quins prior to being employed.

Also in that PLC year was Ida Rentoul, the ‘fairy’ illustrator who went on to illustrate at least one of Tarella’s children’s books, Gum Tree Brownie and Other Faerie Folk of the Never-Never (1907). Years ago when I wrote about Ida’s older sister Annie, I gave her the writing credit for Gum Tree Brownie. Of course I no longer have the source for that. Annie Rattray Rentoul went on to Melbourne University and then returned to PLC as a teacher. A reader of that post gives this sad postscript to Rentoul’s life

Back in 1978, [unnamed] worked at Mont Park Psychiatric Hospital. There was a patient there named Annie Rentoul. Annie was mocked by the patients and some of the staff when she said that she was an author. She went everywhere with a huge handbag. The handbag was often hidden by other patients and uncaring staff, causing her great distress.

I spent weeks researching Annie’s claim of being an author. Ida Rentoul-Outhwaite was easier to find; she was a formerly well known children’s book illustrator. Eventually I found the information; Annie wrote the words; Ida painted the illustrations.

I remember being so excited and couldn’t wait to let Annie know what I had found, but … Annie had died a few days earlier.

I wept for this poor woman who was treated so unkindly in a huge mental health institution.

Madeline Keil, 8 Oct 2018

The last rabbit hole brought up by searching ‘Tarella’ that I want to mention is a quest by the Age (Melbourne) in 1933 to name The Fifty Best Australian Novels. This story was written up by Vivian Smith, in the Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 Oct 1989.

Following a piece in the Age in Feb, 1933 on the Fifty Best Modern English Novels, readers were asked to write in with their 50 best Australians. Such is the sad state of our knowledge of our own literature, that the staff writer (editor?) begins with:

At first sight it would appear to be a difficult task to choose the fifty best Australian novels published since 1900. Memories of For the Term of His Natural Life, The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn, Robbery Under Arms and a few others float before the mind: one is tempted to conclude that fifty genuinely Australian novels have not been published. Such, however, is far from the truth. Here is a list of over forty novelists whose work, produced since 1900, may legitimately claim consideration on its merits as being more or less permanent contributions to English literature [my underlines].

Unexpectedly, the women appear to make the more impressive showing. Pride of place may perhaps be given to Katharine Susannah Prichard, who has claims to be considered our greatest present-day novelist.

No.s 1 and 2 on his list are KSP’s Working Bullocks and Coonardo; then, 3. M Barnard Eldershaw, A House is Built; 4,5,6 the three books of Henry Handel Richardson’s, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney; followed by 7. either Maurice Guest or The Getting of Wisdom; 8. Helen de Guerry Simpson “with her gigantic novel” Boomerang; 9,10. Dorothy Cottrell’s Singing Gold and Earth Battle; 11, 12. Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career and Old Blastus of Bandicoot; and 13. Mrs Aeneas Gunn, We of the Never Never; before we get to any guys.

I’ll list the first 15 (authors) of the first letter writer, because they are interesting (ie. I largely agree with them): 1. Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career; 2. Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy], Such is Life; 3. Louis Stone, Jonah; 4. Barbara Baynton, Human Toll; 5. AB Paterson, An Outback Marriage; 6. KS Prichard, The Pioneers; 7. HH Richardson, Maurice Guest; 8. Arthur Adams, The Australians; 9. Brent of Bin Bin, Up the Country; 10. Bernard Cronin, Bracken; 11. Ion Idriess, Madman’s Island; 12. Velia Ercole, No Escape; 13. FD Davidson, Man Shy; 14. DH Lawrence, Kangaroo; 15. DH Lawrence and Molly Skinner, The Boy in the Bush.

Yes, Vance Palmer does get a run, but well back in the field; and also Martin Mills [Martin Boyd] for The Montforts; Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson and his Mates; and Dulcie Deamer, As It Was in the Beginning; along with quite a few others now long forgotten. The two most prominent women to miss out were Rosa Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land (1915), and Ada Cambridge, Sisters (1904). Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead, Dymphna Cusack, Kylie Tennant were still a year or two away from sweeping all before them.

To end, one discursive correspondent who wins me with “a single book, a masterpiece in its way, Such is Life, by Tom Collins”, has the sentence which captured my search: “Prominent Australian novels of more recent years have been Deadman’s, by Mary Gaunt, Kerno, a Stone, by Tarella Quin, Boomerang, by Helen Simpson, Black Opal and Working Bullocks, by perhaps the ‘livest’ of our novelists, Katharine Prichard …”


You are no doubt wondering, where’s Dragan? He hasn’t rung me again, and perhaps really only had me in mind for covering the serious shortfall in drivers willing to put up with crossing the Nullarbor and the constant commitment to Covid testing and isolation that requires. We’ll see.

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Nathan Hobby, The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, due out from Melbourne University Press, 3 May 2022.

PLC. Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne. See also: The Getting of Wisdom, Henry Handel Richardson

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Dragan’s Back

Journal: 078

There are still wildflowers out in the desert, the last remnants of Spring in amongst the usual grey green scrub and red dirt. But as I never stop to take photos (of flowers, trucks are another matter) you must make do with the kangaroo paw on my balcony which is doing well for a change.

And I’ve been seeing lots of desert. After a blue with the last company I worked for – they booked me for a three day job then ‘forgot’ to tell me it was cancelled – I had a few weeks at home, and in desperation called … Dragan. Sam and Dragan and I spent a pleasant afternoon in the lunchroom swapping war stories and the upshot is Dragan will keep me going with work within WA (and yes, he’s already pressuring me to cross the border to do changeovers. But no way, Jose).

Last weekend I went up to Wiluna, 600 km north of Kalgoorlie and literally the last town on the edge of the dead centre – the Little Sandy Desert or the Gibson Desert – and then 50 km past the end of the bitumen. That was a warm up. As soon as I got home I was off to a mine 100 km past the end of the wheatbelt, past Wave Rock, and then follow the dirt road towards Norseman 80 km, turn north maybe 30 km, and locate the turnoff to a new mine – and if you miss it you’ll be back in phone range in only two or three hours.

This weekend, for a different carrier, I’m going 450 km on a corrugated dirt track out from Kalgoorlie. If I miss that mine … well, I’ll be carrying a satellite phone so hopefully someone will come and find me. (The view from my office window is a bit different from your facebook pic of footprints in the snow in suburban Birmingham. Hey Liz.)

Not driving put a damper on my audio reading, so once I was back on the road I was listening to books without a break in between. There’s some in the list below that I really should have reviewed. Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing was of course for MARM, but I couldn’t get anything from it without notes. She’s a lovely speaker but spent a chapter on ‘my childhood’, then six chapters, from a series of talks she gave somewhere, seemingly on the relationship of writing to religion. Lost me!

I re-listened to Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance so I could comment at least a little bit knowledgeably on Liz Dexter’s review (here) and thoroughly enjoyed it. BIP recommended Cory Doctorow to me some time during MARM. Little Brother is a YA novel of 17 year olds in San Francisco fighting back against the surveillance state and the ridiculous powers awarded in panic to Homeland Security. We have done and continue to do the same thing here (award obscene powers to the security apparatus, that is. No one’s fighting back that I can see). Worth reading. But the best was from the late master, Peter Temple. White Dog is a murder mystery, a tragedy, a tour through Melbourne and Victoria, and a romp around country racecourses.

Of the ‘Currently readings’, ie. books made the old fashioned way with words on paper, These Old Shades was a just a few hours with an old friend. The Young Fur Traders, a very old friend, I have already reviewed; and the other three will be written up sooner rather than later.

My North American Project

I admit I did not use that three weeks off the road to advance this project as far as I should. But, I own Their Eyes Were Watching God, so that will be my January read. I’ll put up a review after AWW Gen 4 Week, probably on Mon 31 Jan. My February read is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. There’ll be a review (from me) and also a guest post from Melanie (Grab the Lapels), at the end of the month, of her experience reading and teaching it.

For March and April I had better see what Canadians I can obtain, through the library system, or from Audible. See the list of books I’m working from (here). I’ve just been re-reading your comments, we might have to make it a two year project!

Let’s say I go with Nalo Hopkinson – BIP, Naomi – help! – which one? Midnight Robber, The Salt Roads, Falling in Love with Hominids. And then perhaps both of Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse and Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster. One of them later in the year.

Back in the US I have on my shelves Octavia Butler’s Kindred, so that’s in, but for the sake of balance I can probably only squeeze in one of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, The Color Purple and Maya Angelou, before we get Louise Erdrich and US First Nations. That gets us to 8 reads, so four to go. Maybe Esi Edugyan (Can), but I’m struggling – I’d really like both an older and a leading edge US First Nations. There is more to do. And more arm-twisting from you, probably.

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Recent audiobooks 

Louis de Bernieres (M, Eng), So Much Life Left Over (2018)
Kate Atkinson (F, Eng), Transcription (2018) – Hist.Fic (WWII)
Anne Tyler (F, USA), Clock Dance (2018)
Margaret Atwood (F, Can), On Writers and Writing (2015) – NF
Peter Temple (M, Aust/Vic), White Dog (2003) – Crime
Cory Doctorow (M, Can), Little Brother (2008) – SF
Janet Evanovich (F, USA), Curious Minds (2016) – Crime
Richard Flanagan (M, Aust/Tas), Death of a River Guide (1994)
JM Coetzee (M, Aust/SA), Elizabeth Costello (2003)

Currently reading

Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), These Old Shades
RM Ballantyne (M, Scot), The Young Fur Traders
Simone de Beauvoir (F, Fra), The Inseparables
Tsitsi Dangarembga (F, Zim), This Mournable Body
John Kinsella (M, Aust/WA), Pushing Back (short stories)