Literary identity and my favourite genres

I love American fiction.

It’s clean, and smart, and utterly unselfconscious. It doesn’t care about making a point or trying to represent anything or being anything other than what it is – great stories told unselfconsciously.

I find, often, that writers of other nationalities feel like they have something to prove – or maybe that’s just me. There’s such a rich European literary tradition that I feel like a lot of writers feel like they have something grand to live up to. Which, on some levels, is true, but ultimately unimportant. Great stories will stand up on their own, whether they sound like James Joyce or JK Rowling. If you love words, it doesn’t matter in whose tradition they’re written. There’s joy in them anyway.

I think this is part of my problematic relationship with Australian fiction. As an Australian, I feel like I should be comfortable in the Australian canon, loving the books that led me to where I am as both an aspiring writer and avid reader. But there’s so many layers to this that it’s hard to separate where I’m going and what I(‘m allowed to) love, so let me see if I can.

Australian fiction, in my experience, is very self-conscious. Sometime in the last couple of centuries writers like AB Patterson and Henry Lawson and Patrick White and Kate Grenville convinced us that to be Australian, a work must be Australian, true-blue Aussie, with the bush and the slang and the red dirt and gum trees that every single person on this planet thinks of when they think the word Australia. There’s a lot problematic with this view of Australian fiction, I know, and I’m trying to branch out, but the truth is that Australian fiction makes me self-conscious. I feel like I have to like it, otherwise how can I call myself an Aussie?, and that’s no way to read anything. Ever.

On the other hand, literature as it’s taught here is very Euro- and American-centric. You know what I studied in high school literature? Shakespeare. Plath. Steinbeck. Doctorow. Okay, we did Thea Astley’s Hunting the Wild Pineapple and “Australian poetry” (loosely defined and crammed into the space of a couple of disorganised weeks), but the emphasis was definitely not local fiction. Even in our universities literature courses are Euro-centric – if you want to study something local, you have to take Australian Literature. Is there an American Literature course you have to take if you want to study American literature in the US? I doubt it. Australia as a whole is so outwardly-focussed, so insecure, that we can’t even study our own culture without drawing attention to the fact that it’s ours. We’re so wrapped up in red dirt and gum trees that we’ve made ourselves the other without even realising it.

All this has culminated in the fact that while I was studying and reading and figuring out what genres and eras I liked, Australian fiction never really got a chance. I love fiction from the twenties and thirties, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Kerouac and Woolf, writing that’s clean and unselfconscious and poetic in its simplicity. I’m sure writing like that exists in the Australian canon, but I’ve never had the chance to find it, because I simply don’t know where to look.

It occurs to me as I write this that it may sound like I’m blaming the education system for my own literary shortcomings. If you want to read Australian fiction, go out and find it, you lazy so-and-so! I can hear. But that isn’t really what I’m saying. I’m saying, ultimately, that as Australians we fetishise the Western Canon (TM) so much that we leave little to no room for our own, and so it stagnates and struggles to grow in the dense forest that is the half-British, half-American culture we so want. We assimilate so far into these foreign cultures that we forget that our own culture, our own language, is legitimate and valuable. I do it, and I don’t even mean to. I do it every time I pass over a book or a TV series or a movie just because I know the writer/producer/director is Australian.

Australians want to fit in so bad that we don’t give ourselves a chance to explore the world through our own lens. I tell people that I love American fiction unselfconsciously, but flinch away from reading books written in my own country. Historically, not awesome. And also fixable, which gives me a little hope.

Now. Where to start. Any suggestions?

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3 thoughts on “Literary identity and my favourite genres

  1. Incredibly pertinent point Fictionandflowers!! This cultural cringe, I feel also extends to Australian theatre, dance, tv and movies although noticeably not popular music. That being said, things we still think of as canonical music is still American-Euro centred which most definitely has a historical basis. However, it is interesting to ask whether all of Australia has the same cringe as those in the city. Shows such as Today Tonight etc seem to reflect a point of view that is far more Australian centred than other streams of culture.

    • That’s a good point, and one I hadn’t thought of. I wonder if the cultural cringe (great term btw) is as prevalent in the country, where the Australian narrative more accurately reflects real life?

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