Thursday, May 14, 2009

New or Old Dirty Realism?

(another in a series of introductory posts on grunge fiction)

New or Old Dirty Realism?
While one result of the Demindenko affair was the ascendance then fall of Helen Dale’s (nee Darville) literary reputation, the stakes in The First Stone debates were built on Helen Garner’s already considerable reputation as a novelist of 1970s inner-urban realism. In 1995, Garner’s claims to author-ity – her position in the Australian literary field – had been established on a string of novels, short stories, and novellas, that enhanced the consecrated status given to her debut novel Monkey Grip (1977).

Monkey Grip is a realist representation of youthful inner-city communal share-house life, involving graphic depictions of drug-taking and sexual experiment that is structured by the search to find a moral position from which to reconcile libertarian practices with the responsibilities of autonomy and parenting. Unlike Dale, whose reputation remained contained within the scandal that broke around her text, the life of Garner’s Monkey Grip appeared to mirror that of Garner as mother-feminist sorting out the wayward-feminist daughters who are her targets in The First Stone.

Monkey Grip
became a germinal, or mother, text for those critics and literary historians looking to dismiss the claims of innovation in form and content that were made on behalf of Grunge fiction. Margaret Henderson and Shane Rowlands argue that “[o]ne main problem with using the label ‘grunge’ is that it reinvents the wheel and thus obliterates other alternative, relevant, and politically engaged antecedents [including] Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip” (3). In a more recent essay Jean-Francois Vernay writes that “Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) may well be seen as the pioneering grunge novel” (146) and that a “libertarian literary movement was initiated by Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip” (152). Monkey Grip, on these readings, is interpreted as a founding novel in Grunge fiction, with the corollary that Monkey Grip is to The River Ophelia what older second wave feminists are to younger postmodern feminists. Or as Garner has grown up now, when Grunge writers grow up they too might write as well as her.

This form of generationalism takes one model of literary politics, one model of literary development, and consigns all others to apolitical, underdeveloped or youthful writing. In terms that resonated throughout The First Stone debates, one reviewer made this level of discourse clear when she wrote: “It’s tremendously difficult for me, at 40, to hike through these two longish novels about a boy and a girl (respectively) stumbling through their twentieth year . . . I just want to snarl “For god’s sake, grow up!”” (Veitch cited in Davis, 1997: 130).

If Monkey Grip was old dirty realism, to follow this line of argument, Grunge fiction was the new old dirty realism. Critics like Davis and Kirsty Leishman have argued, on the contrary, that new experiences and knowledges were brought into Grunge fiction and that these have been dismissed and disavowed by the discourses of generationalism. Leishman claims that “the knowledges informing the values in these [Grunge] novels and short stories proved to be incomprehensible because they were not part of the habitus of [those] encumbent [sic] elites” of the Australian literary field that Davis identifies (96). For Leishman Bourdieu’s concept of habitus – a “second nature” or “second sense” “set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions” – helps to explain the almost unconscious disavowal of the innovations in Grunge fiction enacted by the dominant position-holders in the Australian literary field (Bourdieu cited in Leishman 96, 95). For Leishman the primary innovation of Grunge fiction is its new response to the dominant narratives of Australian identity; narratives which operate on the traditions codified in the Bulletin stories of the 1890s and in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (97).

I think this is a very limited reading of those narratives of Australian identity that circulated in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s. Leishman’s rhetorical gambit of contrasting Grunge fiction to these traditions of the Bush myth is clearly to establish an argument in which there are ruptures in innovation of Grunge fiction without considering the writings of Peter Carey, David Malouf, or Kate Grenville – to name but a few – who have successfully complicated these literary traditions. Indeed, by the time Grunge fiction is a literary event the Australian prime minister who best represented the larrikin, easy-going matey ethos that Leishman outlines – Bob Hawke – had been replaced by a more complex, ambivalent figure in Paul Keating. Keating’s story of Australian identity, and indeed his governmental practices of Australian character and identity, exceed the national fictions Leishman wants to pose as the foil to Grunge’s experiments in “‘a lived philosophical commitment’” (Graeme Turner cited in Leishman 97).

Leishman’s boundary work brings Bourdieu’s sociology of the cultural and literary fields into the analysis of Grunge fiction’s critical reception. Her further claim is that Grunge fiction presents a generational break with the old forms and narratives of a hegemonic Australian identity. I agree with the direction of Leishman’s argument, but you only need to read Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse’s parodies of Henry Lawson's "The Drover’s Wife" to know that the Bush-Nationalist narratives of identity had long been unsettled prior to Grunge fiction’s arrival.

The issue of a ‘lived philosophical commitment’ that the narrators of Grunge fiction present as the alternative to dominant narrativisations of Australian character is a more complex one. Leishman’s thematic reading heads through the literary text to a mimesis of philosophical conduct. This level of explanation gives Grunge fiction a political project. Yet the aesthetic, or formal, level at which Grunge fiction practises its philosophies are elided in Leishman’s explanation. Rather than position Grunge fiction in contrast to questionably hegemonic narratives of national identity, I will take her boundary work and re-position it between a set of political and governmental texts that are contemporary to those of Grunge fiction. Leishman’s foray into the reading of Grunge fiction against a limited array of narratives of national identity misses the opportunity to make more horizontal and promiscuous textual affiliations. Rather than contrast Grunge fiction to the mythologies of Australian character that Bob Hawke embodied and aroused, the textualised figures of Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating will be affiliated with key texts of Grunge fiction in order for a different ensemble of narratives of national identity to be placed into the ambit of Grunge fiction.

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