Marcus Clarke’s Offspring

Marcus Clarke at 20
Marcus Clarke at 20

In his 1958 essay, “The Prodigal Son” Patrick White railed against Australian fiction as being “the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.” While it is true that realism has long been dominant in Australian writing, and the Australian short story, there is a long tradition of experimental stories in Australia, as far back as the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the first experimental Australian short story writer was Marcus Clarke, whose stories included science-fiction, mysteries, crime, realism, horror, fantasy, farce and even metafiction. Clarke anticipated many of the innovations in short fiction that came to be hailed as new and exciting in the 1970s.

Clarke died some years before the rise of Australia’s most important and influential short story writer, Henry Lawson. Though Lawson was undoubtedly one of the targets of White’s criticism, he was in fact a radically experimental writer. No writer before him captured dialogue so realistically, or embraced themes so uniquely Australian. Anyone in doubt of this should pick up an anthology of nineteenth century Australian short stories. Inspired by Lawson, Barbara Baynton would soon add her own twist to Lawson’s realism to produce a number of extraordinary stories.

However, the radical style of Lawson was to become the new conservatism and for a number of years, with exceptions such as Hal Porter, Christina Stead, Marjorie Barnard, and Patrick White himself, Australian short stories tended to be couched in terms of “bush realism.”

This changed in the 1970s when the relaxation of censorship laws and the influence of foreign experimental writers like Borges and Brautigan led to an explosion of “New Writing.” The foremost practitioners of this new experimental short story were Michael Wilding, Frank Moorehouse, Peter Carey and Murray Bail. Each of these writers explicitly rejected the brand of literary realism that had flourished in Australia for so long. Alongside writers such as Vicki Viidikas, their stories embraced once taboo themes such as sex and drugs, and were often set in cities rather than in the bush. They were also formally experimental, utilising a number of postmodern literary techniques to great effect, and breathing new life into genres that had long been marginalised in Australia, such as fantasy and science fiction.

Since the 1970s realism has arguably been in the ascendance once more in the Australian short story, though there have always been, and will always be short story writers willing to experiment, such as Kerryn Goldsworthy, David Brooks, Glenda Adams and, most recently, Paddy O’Reilly. In the last year, The Best Australian Stories 2010 and New Australian Stories 2 as well as the latest Sleepers Almanac have all published a range of traditional and experimental fiction, demonstrating that the experimental tradition is alive and well in Australian writing.

Ryan O’Neill’s stories appear in The Best Australian Stories 2010 (Black Inc.), New Australian Stories 2 (Scribe). His short story collections Six Tenses and A Famine in Newcastle are published by Ginninderra Press. The latter was short-listed for the 2007 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. He lives in Newcastle, New South Wales with his wife and daughters.

Read a.s. patric’s interview with Ryan O’Neill here, at Verity La.

If you have any thoughts or comments to add to Ryan’s post, leave a reply.

5 Comments

  • Contemporary writers such as Anna Couani and Ania Walwicz [to mention only two of many] have made significant contributions in the area of Australian experimental short fiction. I prefer the term ‘fiction’ to ‘story’ as much experimental writing in this genre does not foreground ‘story’.

  • Thanks for the comments, joanne. I could easily have made the post twice as long, and still missed out on many interesting writers.
    I have read Ania Walwicz, and find it interesting the way she blurs fiction and poetry , but hadn’t heard of Anna Couani- I’ll certainly need to track her work down. As for the terms, “fiction” and “story” it pretty much comes down to personal choice, I think. Almost every book about the short story form begins with a definition of what a short story is, and they are all different.
    In my experience, the majority of experimental Australian fiction that I’ve read actually tells a story, although it may be a fractured, inconclusive or incomplete one. Even in experimental fiction, it’s hard to get away from ‘story.”

  • I agree, Joanne, that it’s possible to separate fiction and story, but feel that Ryan does have a point when he suggests that story is intrinsic to most fictional writing. Sans story is certainly experimental but probly won’t garner many readers. My opinion is that, generally speaking, story should lie at the heart of all fictional writing – experimental or otherwise – if it is to more than just writing. Anyone can write. Good story telling is much harder and rarer than writing.

  • Thats a good point Robin. One of the things I have discovered in my reading of experimental short stories is that an experimental story is not necessarily a good one. Even in the golden age of Australian experimental writing (the 1970s) there were some truly terrible experimental short stories : pretentious, over-obscure, shocking for the simple sake of shocking, and some almost unreadable. I’d choose a well-written “traditional” story over a badly written experimental one any day.

    If a story deviates too far from “story” it simply becomes a literary exercise, and alienates the reader (something my own stories have been accused of, from time to time.). The most successful experimental stories manage to avoid this, even when radically experimenting with form. (A couple of examples I can think of are Glenda Adams “Reconstruction of an Event” and Murray Bail’s “Zoellner’s Definition”).

    As the great Dave St Hubbins of Spinal Tap said, “It’s such a fine line between stupid, and clever.”

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