Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reads like Grunge/market spirit

(And another introduction post)

Reads like Grunge spirit

However much Grunge, as a term, is under erasure, it has a more solid status in the Australian literary field than it did when it emerged in 1995 when there was a considerable contest over the validity of the name. Critic Paul Dawson argued that “grunge lit is seen by most as a facile and modish form of writing. But grunge is not so much a literary movement as a market category” (119). Ian Syson, in one of the more cogent critiques, argued that use of the term “Smells Like Market Spirit” (Syson, 1996: 21). Syson writes that

[w]hatever else it might name Grunge also refers to a marketing ploy. Observing the street cred that grunge bands like Nirvana possessed, elements of the literature industry saw a way of obtaining relatively high levels of credibility and sales among a large and untapped 25–40-year-old market by promoting a set of new writers as being the literary equivalent of that same sentimental teen spirit. And is the rumours of the sales of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia are anywhere near the truth, then the ploy has worked – at least in terms of sales. (21)

Syson’s substantive point, however, is not to dismiss the novels classified and marketed as Grunge fiction as similarly representative of that sentimental teen spirit because they have been marketed in a cynical manner. The marketing of Grunge fiction is, indeed, part of the broader political and economic context that Syson sees as being inscribed into these novels: Tsiolkas’ Loaded “has captured a moment in Australian history at which some basic cultural promises are in the process of being broken” (22). Thus Syson’s argument in his influential essay on Grunge fiction is that the Grunge novel, and Loaded in particular, “is a working class novel written when it is not possible to write one” (22).

Syson never articulates precisely why such a novel is impossible to write in the early 1990s. He does, however, offer a sketch of contemporary historical sociology and political-economy, and draws lines from this sketch back to Grunge fiction. Elements in this impression include the claims that “[o]ver the last decade a growing rationalist spirit has moved into place in Australian cultural policy” and that contemporary business practice “is about ransacking communities and their cultures and patterns of behaviour in order to commodify and privatise them” (25-26). For Syson “Grunge, in its powerful and directed forms, is more a response to that growing market spirit” and it “articulate[s] the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest levels” (26).

The main boundary on which Syson’s essay works is that of marxist-based nationalist literary criticism and literary history abutting an analysis of the contemporary political economy of the literary publishing field. For Syson, the Australian literary field of 1995-96 is subjected to a ‘market spirit’ which frames literary production and reception through regimes of value that work to elide representations of working-class existence and working-class reading formations. There are two allusions in Syson’s essay that provide the basis on which to shift the boundary on which it does its work. The first is to Michael Pusey’s Habermasean critique of economic rationalism. The second is to Raymond Williams’ notion of a structure of feeling. In what follows I will take these two concepts and arguments and seek to make new affiliations between the Grunge fiction that Syson considers and those texts which also register these rumblings and rationalities.

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