Thursday, May 14, 2009

Literary Generationalism c1995

(Another revised section from the thesis intro)

Literary generationalism

Literary politics holds a central place in Mark Davis’ Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism. Davis’ forensic tracking of the networks of Australia’s media and cultural elite extant in the early to mid 1990s is given an explicitly literary focus through two moments in 1995 when the Australian literary field and literary works became flashpoints in the Australian instantiation of the culture wars. The publication of Helen Darville’s award-winning historical novel of Ukranian complicity in the Jewish Holocaust, The Hand the Signed the Paper, and Helen Garner’s new-journalist account of a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University’s Ormond College, The First Stone, pushed Australian literature and position-holders in the field into areas of the public sphere normally held by politicians, reviewers and media in-house commentators. Both texts involved young women whose practices of authenticity, speaking position or institutional politics were causes for polarising debates and attacks that left in their wake a striking “reorganisation of public space” (Davis 1997: 210).

The Demindenko affair raised two key issues. In a time when official multiculturalism was under sustained conservative attack, the revelation of the author’s non-‘ethnic’ identity gave succour to those critics who thought the bestowal of the prestigious Miles Franklin on the novel was an act of political correctness. For these critics the fraud Darville perpetrated exposed and mirrored the fraud that multiculturalism was. The novel’s complex representation of anti-semitism also prompted a heated public debate where claims about the freedom and rights of the literary imagination were subjected to counterclaims about an author’s duty to historical truth and definitive moral judgement.

The debates over Garner’s work intersected with those active in the Demindenko affair through the trope of political correctness. In the case of The First Stone the flashpoint of political correctness was sparked off from claims that feminism had reached its end-point by achieving the conditions for formal gender equality and that a new, puritan and punitive victim-feminism was gaining institutional support. This new feminism was seen by Garner and key position-holders in the literary and public spheres as unfairly disadvantaging, and in some cases destroying, men. It was also seen as derailing the gains that second-wave feminists, like Garner, claimed to have made. The debates over the issues that Garner’s work brought to the surface of the mainstream public sphere were often played out in the terms of conflicting generations: mothers and daughters; old and new feminists, fighting over the direction of feminism’s projects, and over who had the proprietorial rights to this direction considering “the unsuitability of young women as heirs to the feminist tradition” (84).

Garner’s The First Stone set up the generational trope in Australian feminism as a key form through which debate was to proceed. Few voices entering this debate were able to step around and outside the powerful symbolism of older Mother feminists – who had wisdom to impart and the experience on which such knowledge was based – instructing and fretting over newer, daughter feminists – who had new forms of knowledge and experience that second wave feminists lacked. To see feminism cleave through such polarising public talk only confirmed conservative views of the self-interestedness of its claims: feminism had gone too far because it was, like any lobby group, or ‘industry’, serving its own interests.

In contrast to these two literary events of 1995, Davis gives less analysis to the other minor literary event of the year: Grunge fiction. For Davis the trope of generationalism is again active in the literary public sphere reception of grunge fiction; structuring how liberal literary coteries responded to the dirty realism of Tsiolkas, Ettler, Jaivin, Berridge and McGahan’s fictions.

What links these three events of 1995 is how young voices were lost in the welter of debates that mark the ascendance of the Neo-conservative backlash to Neoliberalism in the form of the culture wars. Yet rather than see these young voices – Tsiolkas and Darville’s narrators and the young women of Ormond College – as expressing and acting on the basis of new experiences and knowledges and bringing these into the literary public sphere, I contend that the cultural form of the youth-to-adulthood period of transition – the period of an individual’s coming-of-age – is inseparable from what is at stake in each of these three events. In Gangland Davis opens up this line of analysis, working on the boundaries between politics and culture. His discussion of Grunge fiction is less concerned with literary form and narrative technique than with the terms on which it was received. Here again we find that the tropes of generationalism structure the critical response. Yet if generationalism is a cultural form that is clearly highly charged in Australian political culture in the early to mid 1990s then the fiction concerned with one of western modernity’s primary flashpoints of human generationalism – the coming-of-age period – demands to be read as fiction that is also about, rather than merely expressing, the dominant cultural forms of coming-of-age. The boundary work I am arguing for here involves reading Grunge fiction again as metafictions on the literary form of coming-of-age.

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