Reappraising Grunge Fiction
[G]enres arise in response to particular predicaments, particular needs, particular cultural logics, particular choices. These are the kinds of things a good literary history accounts for. (Gelder 2008: 76)
Grunge fiction has an uncertain and precarious status in Australian literary studies. This precarious status can be seen by analysing the ways in which Grunge fiction has been embedded or treated in Australian literary studies and history. These analyses and stories of the emergence and critical reception of Grunge fiction have been told through four main frameworks, which all emphasize different theoretical approaches to the debut novels of Andrew McGahan, Christos Tsiolkas and Justine Ettler. These frameworks seek to place Grunge fiction into either a contest of literary generations fought over the conception and validity of new experiences and styles; into established traditions of ‘dirty’ or social realism; to situate, and often to thereby dismiss, it within a moment of marketing hyperbole; or to read Grunge fiction as a genre centrally concerned with the depiction of the abject.
Sometimes aspects of more than one of these four frameworks are present in a single entry or essay on Grunge, which often serves to place the term under a kind of Derridean erasure: Grunge fiction (Spivak lxix). This typical way of representing Grunge fiction is found in the recently published survey of Australian fiction After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007. In the chapter focussed on women’s writing Paul Salzman gives three paragraphs to Grunge fiction for the purpose of framing his criticism of the representation of ‘the abject body in grunge fiction written by women’ through Ettler’s The River Ophelia in particular (Gelder and Salzman, 2009: 205). Salzman compares Ettler’s novel unfavourably to Mary Fallon’s Working Hot – which, unlike Ettler’s, radically rewrites its literary-sexual context – and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – which has for Salzman, at least, a redeeming black humour (205-6). But it is how Salzman uses the frameworks about Grunge fiction to set up his criticism of Ettler’s novel that is of particular interest as all four are brought into play in his three paragraphs. Salzman effectively places Grunge fiction under erasure by, on the one hand, valorising the term by employing it, and, on the other, by consistently de-legitimising any claims that the term has to describe and name singular literary phenomena. Salzman achieves this de-legitimation through ascribing the motives of grunge authors to a cynical exercise in ticking abject subjects off a list of ‘grunge bases: drugs, vomit, shit, rough sex, a youth culture that embraces a certain chic poverty, and a barely suppressed misogyny (possibly as an ironic reflection on the characters)’ (204). The link between abjection and the sort of niche marketing list Salzman parodies is reinforced by his initial historical evaluation of ‘grunge fiction [as having been] fashionable in the early 1990s [and] practic[ing] a kind of épater le bourgeois’ (204). The story of Grunge fiction Salzman is telling here is one of a younger generation of apprentice writers who, or critics on their behalf, made false claims about their novels’ innovations in form and content, and who sought to create a reading market through narratives that were told with vulgar language and that depicted abject bodies and graphic sex (204-6).
The precarious place of Grunge fiction is clearly on display in this recent Australian literary history. Salzman takes the four frameworks used to position, interpret and explain Grunge fiction and turns them to the service of reducing the sub-genre to a moment in marketing hyperbole that clothed itself in literary generationalism as a means of aspiring to claims of consecrated literary status or symbolic capital (Bourdieu 122-23 and 255). The validity of Grunge’s newly-found concern with abjection is dismissed by Salzman on the bases that ‘there isn’t anything new as such about the depiction of the transgressive body in fiction’ and that such concern is, again, ultimately designed to shock an older readership (205).
As a second symptomatic example of where and how Grunge fiction resides in Australian literary history we will consider Delys Bird’s chapter on ‘Contemporary Fiction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, which was published in 2000. Bird gives a paragraph to Grunge fiction. She writes: ‘[it] became the new fiction of the 1990s, labelled in this way to appeal to the youthful reading audience to whom it was marketed’ (206). She lists what have become the central Grunge authors and their primary work in the sub-genre: Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded, Andrew McGahan’s Praise, and Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia. And she observes that the writers are young, ’often products of writing schools,’ that their work has an ‘explicit, sometimes relentless focus on sex, drugs and life on the margins of society’ and that the fiction ‘may also be preoccupied with generational conflict with authority figures’ (206). Here in this chapter’s penultimate paragraph, residing within a sub-section titled ‘THE NEW PROFESSIONALS,’ we can again see both the precarious inscription of Grunge fiction into Australian literary history – shunted into the end of the chapter like an afterthought – and the thematics through which it has been critically received working to situate Grunge fiction on the border-line of Australian literary history: literary generationalism, marketing hype, inner-urban dirty realism, and youthful writing.
The theme of abjection that is central to Salzman’s critique, is missing in Bird’s critical-description. In its stead, however, is praise for McGahan’s Praise and 1988 which ‘are interested in the political and personal implications of grunge living, giving his writing a dimension this fiction often lacks’ (206). With this evaluation of McGahan’s early fiction Bird firms the sub-genre’s toehold on the monolith of Australian literary history through the concept of ‘grunge living’. She implies that his novels legitimately narrativise these techniques of self in such a singular way as to have their own name. While not mentioning abjection, the ‘grunge living’ that Bird finds in McGahan’s early novels cannot be separated from the diseased and abject bodies of Gordon Buchanan and Cynthia Lamonde in Praise in particular.
This fourth framework – of abjection – arrives into Bird’s consideration of Grunge fiction to give the sub-genre a sociological and existential authenticity that firmly de-formalizes the early work of McGahan and Tsiolkas. It is then only a short step in the arguments that are routinely made about Grunge fiction to link the authenticity of ‘grunge living’ to the callowness of the writer and the writing, as Salzman does when he asserts: ‘If grunge really was so age-specific, perhaps it makes sense that as writers get older they leave it behind. Given the passage of time, it is also easier to see the limitations of the nihilism and repetitiveness of many of these novels’ (205).
It is no surprise, then, that Grunge fiction is situated within Australian literary history in this precarious way. The four frameworks through which it has mostly been interpreted police the limits of what these texts might mean for us, and what we might do with them, at a time when they have become literary history; at a time when the first wave of their most intense period of production, distribution reception is surely over. As Grunge fiction moves into the textual terrain of Australian literary and cultural history there are opportunities to push at the limits of the four hermeneutic frames and to reappraise novels like McGahan’s Praise and 1988, and Tsiolkas’ Loaded. There are cultural and political boundaries in these hermeneutics that have proscribed the textual affiliations that can reasonably be made with Grunge fiction. These hermeneutic frameworks are themselves symptomatic of the cultural politics and, indeed, political culture that not only has shunted Grunge fiction into the remaindered punk bin of Australian letters, but has more importantly struggled to offer a literary history and practices of literary criticism that detect and analyse the emergence and dominance of Neoliberalism in Australian political culture.
Such proscriptions and impasses forestall the traversals and connections enabled by a ‘horizontal and promiscuous, not vertical and monogamous [reading of] the cultural field’ within which Grunge fiction circulated(Gelder 2008: 72). The occlusion of such boundary work in regard to Grunge fiction has been at the cost of a critical discourse, a potentially public debate, on the cultural forms through which Neoliberal techniques of the self became embedded into Australian political culture in the 1980s and 1990s. It is the central contention of this thesis that Grunge fiction both registers and attempts to resist the narrativisation of Neoliberal rationalities and techniques into areas of Australian political culture.
In order to build and put the arguments for these claims this thesis will move through the following structure. The next section of this introduction will take four critical texts that codify the four frameworks for interpreting and explaining Grunge fiction and critically analyse the theoretical bases of these four approaches. My purpose in this section of the introduction is to begin to push against the cultural and political boundaries that are encoded into these approaches, and to begin to multiply, through a horizontal promiscuity, the textual affiliations of Grunge fiction. These four frameworks are: literary generationalism; marketing hype; literary traditions and innovations; and the theme of abjection.
The next section of the introduction will detail the literary and cultural studies theoretical apparatus which enable these initial movements through the orthodox frameworks for writing about Grunge fiction. Then, the introduction will present the thesis’ central theoretical concepts which are taken from Franco Moretti’s and, to a lesser extent, Fredric Jameson’s, historical sociology of literary form. Here I will argue that the effective application of the methods of Moretti’s literary history to Grunge fiction demands that a locally and temporally specific historical sociology needs to be presented. And finally, in this introduction, I will introduce the model for this late twentieth-century Australia-inflected historical sociology: Peter Beilharz’s long Labor decade.
The subsequent chapters of the thesis are structured through this initial horizontal and periodising movement. Beilharz’s periodization of Australian political-cultural modernity – the long Labor decade – emerges out of his hermeneutics of the texts of, and concerning, the Australian Labor Party in government: 1983-96. Beliharz’s melancholic and mournful work of interpretive historical sociology provides the structure upon which the thesis' chapters are formed. Thus the first chapter, after establishing the key terms of this historical sociology – labourism, social-Liberalism and industrial citizenship – moves into three studies of key figures and texts in the period.
The first study focuses on the traditions that the ALP prime minister Gough Whitlam encapsulated for some writers on the Left during the period. The keynotes of this genre of writing were expressions of loss and betrayal, often mounted as accusations, against the Hawke-Keating Governments, which were defined in opposition to the Labor traditions that Whitlam and his Government were claimed to have embodied. My interest here is in the narrativisations and texualisation of Whitlam and Whitlamism, for Whitlam becomes, I argue, a ghostly figure that haunts the long Labor decade, as a spectre of a lost tradition and of a lesson in mis-management.
The second study hones in on the figure of treasurer, then prime-minister, Paul Keating. Here I analyse the richly imaginative rhetoric of Keating alongside the biographies and memoirs of Keating.
Thirdly, I seek to draw back from the central figures of the period into analysis of what can be regarded as its central text: Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty.
The final section of chapter one defines, and explains how I will use, Michel Foucault’s concept of Neoliberal governmentality throughout the thesis’ remaining three literary-focussed chapters. I situate the historical emergence of these new forms of liberal government within the period ending the dominance of the social-liberal Keynesian techniques of government, and ending the articulation of these social-liberal techniques to Labourist ones. This period is characterised by the re-emergence of global finance capitalism, best signalled by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of financial regulation and the growth of floating national currency exchanges.
Having established the non-fictional texualisation and narrativisation of the period, the remaining three chapters of the thesis jump tracks and move back into a literary critical and literary historical mode that is structured by the hermeneutic model Beilharz proffers. Thus chapter two reads the oeuvres of Frank Moorhouse and Amanda Lohrey against the loss of Whitlam and Whitlamism and the emergence of Neoliberal forms of government. It also reads two of their novels against the post-Whitlam sense of mourning and loss.
Chapter three returns us to Grunge fiction. Now we are ready to read Praise, 1988 and Loaded with the armoury of textual affiliations and openings across cultural and political boundaries that were closed and occluded in those readings analysed in the introduction.
Chapter three uses the reading made in chapter one of Kelly’s use of the Bildungsroman form to narratively embed Neoliberal governmentalities into Australian political culture as the basis on which to read three novels which also invoke this period and these generic conventions. Perlman’s Three Dollars, McCann’s Subtopia and Macris Capital, volume one are interpreted and explained as responses to the embedding of Neoliberalism into Australian, and indeed Global, political culture. While Three Dollars is disabled and disfigured in its response, Subtopia and Capital, volume one use sophisticated politics of literary form to both resist and point to ways out of Neoliberalism.
The thesis concludes with a short survey of other fiction of the period and a brief outlining of areas for future research suggested by the thesis.