the fiction we were producing [in the 1980s and 90s] was either too post-modern, too self-referential, too badly edited, leached of feeling, or pitched to an international audience. As fiction turned its face elsewhere, detaching itself more and more from local realities and local experience, there was a space waiting, an opening. It was filled by writing that wasn’t fiction. As if in response to distress, there was a return to the narrative of lives and the exploration of experience that could make sense of – of just raise – questions of identity and responsibility that were coming back to vex us after years of being dismantled and reconfigured. (206)
Literary biographer, commentator and journalist David Marr’s attempt to resuscitate the political edge of contemporary fiction wanted it sharpened so as to cut conservative prime minister John Howard from the Lodge due to Howard’s devaluing of “the currency of language” and manipulation of “race fears to hang onto power” (Modjeska: 207, Marr: par. 11). For Marr, fiction has let Australia down:
I have a simple plea to make: that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, no flinching, coming to grips with the fact that we have been on a long loop through time that has brought us back almost – but not quite – to where we were. Few Australian novels [. . .] address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. (Marr: par. 23 my emphasis)
Writing back to Marr’s lecture academic Julianne Lamond argues that his elision of such political novelists of the previous ten years as Andrew McGahan, Amanda Lohrey and Christos Tsiolkas speaks to the real terms of this debate: “form and genre, race and nationhood” (83). Indeed, how do we read the fiction of the present, which Modjeska and Marr both lament as largely disengaged and apolitical, when the avowedly political fiction of the recent past has, in many ways, been poorly read?
Novelist and current editor of the literary journal Meanjin, Sophie Cunningham, responded to Marr’s provocations by observing that the novels of McGahan and Tsiolkas “in the early to mid-1990s were set in the present [yet] were quickly herded into the “grunge” corral and left in the mud” (cited in Lamonde: 85).
Grunge novels have been poorly served by sections of the Australian literary field. Their politics of literary form have been disavowed and elided. At the end of Tim Rowse’s Australian Liberalism and National Character in a section titled “Populism as Literary Form,” Rowse argues that “[t]he New Critics’ [Craig McGregor and Donald Horne] concern with everyday life is a development, in a [. . .] ‘literary’ direction, [of the] shift from an explanatory mode to a more evocative rendering of the Australian outlook” (1978: 257). For Rowse, the language of politics in the 1970s was shaped through these innovations in form in the 1960s.
In focussing so fixedly, as Marr and Modjeska do, on the experiences that political fiction is meant to engage, the lessons of analysis like Rowse’s of the literary forms of populism have been forgotten and subsumed by the demand that literary fiction enact a type of moral critique. Is it any wonder, then, that when the literary form of politics is disavowed, the politics of literary form is similarly abjured? Rather than look to fiction to offer up journalistic-style experiences for fashioning a conscience and consciousness from which a moral critique can be advanced against political hegemonies like Howard’s, it is to literary form as itself an historical and sociological phenomenon that we should first look for such resources.