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Australian fiction has been widely published in the United States. But, with some exceptions, it has been published under a commercial aegis. The marketing rationale for Australian literature has, in fact, particularly emphasized Australian literatures old-fashioned narrative appeal, its ability to provide the vivid stories deemed absent in more technically advanced but less narratively meaty British and American fiction. The Bolanos, Houellebecqs, and Murakamis, who, as foreign authors, have managed to both sell well and provoke thoughtful critical reaction in the U.S. and U.K., have not had their Australian equivalents.

Even when it led to misunderstandings of such undeniably innovative writers such as Patrick White, Thea Astley, or Peter Carey, this distorted commercial view has predominated. Earlier Aussie yarn-spinners such as Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) who wrote in a decidedly "Shandean" vein have not been afforded access to a metropolitan readership.

The fiction collected in this special issue of RCF forms a very different constellation. The writers included here are consciously experimental, in style, approach, and subject matter. They represent Australian literature as world literature, rather than as a peripheral branch of English-language writing. They write less to epitomize a national temperament than a sensibility. They ask about the dreams, premises, and questions of Australian culture rather than trying to prepackage it in a consumerist mode. They are unafraid of either humor or pathos, and they don't restrict themselves simply to "important" subjects. Though not obtrusively wearing postmodernist labels, they all partake in a risk-taking and non-objective aesthetic that puts them in the company of the international corps of writers featured in, and championed by, RCF. They all, in their different modes, contend, as Tom Flood puts it in The Little Gap in Talk, that "characters are not people" They are aware of fiction as a process of reelection, not a transparent registering of the given. And, as Gerald Murnane's story shows, they do not overly romanticize the imagination, which is strange enough on its own without needing to be gilded with the flowery rhetoric of self-loving art.

Australia is a large and heterogeneous country, and these writers cannot be grouped into one school or tendency. As A. L. McCann's story makes clear, the gap between Melbourne and Sydney can seem as wide as that between Sydney and New York. But they all display the liveliness and invention at play in Australian literature in a way that has simply not been represented in American publishing so far. Let's hope some American publishers read these stories and sit up and take notice.

Gerald Murnane is an obdurately original writer of fiction, who works within the idiosyncratic geography of mind and memory. He is the only living Australian writer comparable to, in both achievement and slant of mind, Proust, Borges, or Calvino, though possessing a keen and gentle insight all his own. Yet Murnane also (before his 1995 retirement) excelled as a teacher of writing, and, as we see the excerpt from Barley Patch presented here, none of his students have ever contemplated giving up the craft. Two of Murnane's former students, Tim Richards and Christopher Cyrill, have developed distinctive and high-spirited styles that are exuberantly on display in their contributions. Richards may be described as pioneering a zany fictional sociology, while Cyrill uses fiction to register the unrecognized, surreal rituals that surround us.

Michael Wilding's vigorous, irreverent prose evokes, with a scalding empathy entirely his own, the rush of social and cultural experimentation that overtook Sydney in the 1970s. In the next generation, Christos Tsiolkas evokes a dark sense of wreckage and cultural clash in contemporary Melbourne. Tsiolkas has challenged cultural pieties in a bracing way, all the while producing prose of great suppleness and skill. Carmel Bird's sense of the wounds of memory makes her psychological vision distinctive. Bird's focus on the repressiveness of institutional authority combines with a bravura style and a welcome willingness to let the reader make up their own mind to conjure an unusual mixture of playfulness and plangency. Brenda Walker, who has been acclaimed for her historical fiction, shifts to a contemporary setting with her contribution to this volume. Walker continues her metaphorical imaging of interpersonal relationships in mysterious yet pellucidly fresh prose. Delia Falconer possesses a talent for haunting analysis that is unmatched among contemporary writers. Falconer has read widely in international fiction, ranging from Sebald to Tanizaki in her significant influences, and her vision has a cosmopolitan reach.

Falconer's contribution also has the added value of alluding to Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971), Australia's great modern poet, virtually unknown abroad. Bestselling in Australia, Falconer's work has been published in the U.S. but so far has hovered beneath the radar of the cultural opinion-makers. Tom Flood's contribution shows a daring and gifted writer stretching the possibilities of prose fiction to the maximum and giving us a glimpse of a vast fictional universe. Flood is bringing Australian fiction to a place where it might take ten or twenty years for most other writers to catch up. Like Wilding and Walker, A. L. McCann is a respected academic as well as a creative writer. His fiction has explored the fetishes and cultural contradictions of colonialism and terrorism, and in his contribution here he turns to the contradictions of the contemporary literary life, especially among "ex-Generation X writers" (likely to be a burgeoning category). Somebody who has stretched boundaries in several genres is Tom Shapcott, known as a poet and as a novelist, and his haunting contribution to this volume displays his aptitude for evoking extreme mental states amid exactingly rendered settings. Greg Bogaerts, from working-class Newcastle, and Ouyang Yu, originally from China, hammer on the doors of the Australian literary establishment; Bogaerts and Ouyang also share a responsiveness to situations which is far from merely naturalistic. Ouyang, like Shapcott, is better known as a poet. Many of the best-known Australian novelists, Rodney Hall, Roger McDonald, and David Malouf among them, started out as poets; among other benefits, their familiarity with twentieth-century world poetry has kept their fiction in touch with international standards.

And it is this contact with international standards that, paradoxically, the international conglomerates who dominate Australian publishing have dismally failed to do; they are content to churn out would-be commercial blockbusters. It has been left to small, independent publishers to fill the gap, and none has done this with more flair and cogency than Ivor Indyk and his Giramondo Press. Giramondo has taken up writers such as Murnane and Brian Castro whose much-admired work is as yet ignored by the commercial consensus. Giramondo's latest feat is its publication of Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious prize. This ambitious and moving book is, in the company of Kim Scott's Benang (2000), the most notable novel produced so far in the twenty-first century by an indigenous Australian. This is only one of many promising recent developments that challenge our received image of Australian writing as the preserve of rip-roaring, realistic historical fiction, and opens up Australian writing to the world. The selections in this issue, analogously, aspire to open up an international readership to Australian writing.

--Nicholas Birns, 2007
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Author:Birns, Nicholas
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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