In 1988, Bruce Chatwin wrote a letter to Murray Bail thanking him for sending a collection of Australian short stories Bail had edited.1 “I'll talk to you about them one day,” Chatwin commented. “I like Murnane: but so often, in the others, there is an evenness of texture which I find rather disturbing.2”
It's a line that must have invited Bail to have a hard look at stories being written by Australian writers at the time when compared to the literature being produced internationally. More than twenty-five years later, Bruce Chatwin's comment might prompt us to ask similar questions, and it's difficult to avoid feeling that we should be disturbed.
While we do have our challenging writers (I also like Murnane), I'd contend that the majority of Australian fiction, and particularly the shorter fiction published in our literary journals, is tremendously unambitious. It's fiction that is content to lean back on its banana lounge and stare at the weather. It counts the seagulls, and tells you that it is counting the seagulls, and then the seagulls turn dark. A strong tendency towards minimalistic realism, with wafts of expressionistic description. A flat and predictable voice. Linearity, or the nearest thing to it.
Early last year I enjoyed an exchange of emails with Robert Skinner, the editor of the new story magazine, The Canary Press. He argued that Australian fiction was too academic, while I pressed the point that it wasn't academic enough. It's perfectly conceivable that we were addressing the same issue from different angles.
At one point, Robert explained: “When I read a lot of the stuff in literary journals I think: really? Is this what sets your heart on fire? This is what's burning inside of you?” while I responded, “when I read...journal fiction, I think: really? Is that the most interesting thing you can do with language? With style and voice?”
Chatwin's comment may be a veiled criticism of Bail's editorial choices, and this consideration should also stretch to the present. But an editor only has a certain pool of contributions to select from. Robert Skinner again: “When we started the magazine we assumed that the magazines just weren't publishing the sort of stuff we were into. But most of the submissions we get are in much the same mould as what the lit journals publish. I'm not sure which begat which.”
It's for this reason that it is such a pleasure to be presenting the work of six Tasmanian writers who are bucking this well-trodden trend.
Whether the island's isolation provides freedom from the influence of the majority of Australian fiction, or there are different strains of influence, or if there is even some truth in Pete Hay's contention that:
“to write Tasmania is to write an anti-Australian literature... The Australian landscape icons for example, the bare brown land and wide open plains of Dorothea Mackellar, they are irrelevant to me. New Zealand poetry speaks to me more than does Australian poetry, because I share the same sort of landscape icons, the plunging, uneven landscape that I’m accustomed to in Tasmania, the forests and ravines and canyons and mountains. That landscape seems to generate a poetry with a lot more passion than the desiccated dry-as-dust understated poetry that mainland Australia generates.3"
There may be some truth in each of these suggestions; and yet I find it hard to believe that any of them are vital. In the end, the crucial thing is always what goes on in a writer's head and how it meets the page. Each of these works witnesses to this individuality – they are hearteningly distinct in terms of style and voice, and for the most part, veer widely from the predominant Australian style.
There is Susie Greenhill's assured and compelling voice in “The Secrets of Trees” and the playwright Caitlin Richardson's stream of consciousness work “The Flowers”; the crescendo of Robbie Arnott's “The Carport Ending” and the lucid abstractions of Adam Ouston's “Story of a Chair;” the lyrical contrasts within Michael Blake's “Track,” and the rolling rhythms of expatriate Tasmanian Tadhg Muller's “The Road North.” All of these represent the strong, ambitious diversity within emerging Tasmanian voices.
If writers, editors and readers continue to expand their expectations for what a short story can and should be, we will see more of this kind of work published in Tasmania.
And perhaps the rest of Australia as well.
Ben Walter's work has been published widely, appearing in Griffith Review, Overland, Island, The Review of Australian Fiction, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Cordite and a range of other magazines and journals. He is the author of Below Tree Level, produced as a book and literary installation on Mt. Wellington, and edited the award-winning craft/fiction anthology, I Sleep in Haysheds and Corners. He has twice won Express Media’s award for Best Project for Young Writers in Tasmania. In 2013, his unpublished poetry manuscript Lurching was shortlisted in the Tasmanian Literary Prizes. You can visit his website here.