Paul Genoni’s speech for the launch of Falling Backwards
Crow Books, 10 September 2018
I recall the first time I met Jo Jones quite clearly. It was over a decade ago, at a time when the so-called ‘history wars’ were raging, just a couple of years after Stewart MacIntyre’s book The History Wars had been published, and at a point when the debate had focused, in the wake of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, on the respective claims of history and fiction to report the ‘truth’ of the Australian frontier.
Jo came to my office to see me in my role as Post-graduate Coordinator for what was then (I think) the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts, and she was looking to enrol in a PhD. This enquiry led to a discussion of her topic. I was immediately engaged by two things—other than the topic itself. The first was her very appealing readiness to undertake the proposed research. Jo had a very clear vision of exactly what she wanted to do, and even the fictional texts on which her research would focus. I do recall throwing a couple of other novels into the discussion for her consideration, but I also recall that the suggestions were gently rebuffed. She knew what she wanted to do.
Secondly I was impressed by her intellectual maturity and passion for her subject matter. Even before embarking on the research proper there was a sophistication to the ideas that she was bringing to the discussion that belied both her youth and the fledgling status of her project.
In due course, under the direction of Tim Dolin, Jo wrote an exceptionally fine thesis, and now with a little more crafting it has been turned into an exceptionally fine book. To a remarkable extent, the project we discussed at that initial meeting is the same one that has reached maturity in Falling Backwards.
It must be said that it is brave book. Although the history wars might have receded a little they are not going away anytime soon. It is in the DNA of Australian cultural and political life to contest the nature of our colonial experience, to the point where whether one aligns with the so called ‘black armband’ or ‘white blindfold’ versions of the national narrative has been a cornerstone of the identity of academics, journalists, cultural commentators, Prime Ministers or indeed Australians at large. And it has been of course not only a debate around the substance of Australia’s past, but also about who has authority over that past. Who is it that owns the archive; reconstructs the matters of detail, motive and culpability; who reconciles the wins against the losses; who embalms the national narrative?
The debates that emerged around the role that fiction might play in representing elements of the colonial experience was a seemingly academic point that eventually reached well outside the academy. In a way that is quite uncommon in the Australian public sphere, literature suddenly found it was on the front pages, dividing opinion columns, a centrepiece of editorials. This is the debate into which Falling Backwards injects itself, and as I am sure Jo is very well aware, will permanently align her with certain intellectual positions within the academy, and with wider political positions beyond it. It is to the credit of Falling Backwards that the debate is engaged as the context of the book, but that the purpose is passionately pro-literature, rather than in any sense ‘anti-history’. The intention is to demonstrate what good fiction is capable of doing, rather than taking on debates regarding the failing of any other genre or discipline.
In looking for a neat quote from the book itself that can summarise its argument, I chose this—perhaps not surprisingly from the Introduction.
Thus, the terrain of the postmodern and historical sublime—of loss and uncertainty—is one in which historical fiction can perform an important political and ethical role. […] The space which lies beyond history, the space of those who are often unrepresented, often victims, often silent, is an abyss into which fiction, particularly historical fiction, is sometimes able imaginatively, and also ethically, to descend. (27)
The challenge raised in those sentences is in the use of the word ‘sometimes’. As is argued in Falling Backwards, the use of fiction as form of empathising agent on behalf of liberal humanism is far from a straightforward proposition. Indeed it is ethically fraught, particularly when the Enlightenment is also partly responsible for bequeathing us the realist historical novel, a very imperfect tool for the task.
One of the important rhetorical strategies of Falling Backwards is to constantly recall the very particular trajectory of Australian colonialism that came about because of its grounding in the Enlightenment, which Jo importantly and correctly distinguishes from the ‘Enlightenment project’. If the modern Australian historical novel is rightly seen as by-product of liberal humanism that took root in the Enlightenment, then we can locate its antecedents in the very same intellectual developments that created the economic, social and scientific drivers of the colonial frontier. These in turn became spaces in which Enlightenment values often all too quickly retreated or were subsumed by other imperatives and the Australian frontier became a space in which the values of the Enlightenment project were constantly contested. The results were sometimes catastrophic, although as reading Falling Backwards reminds us, there were of course winners and losers in this process, but in a psychological sense the winners also often ended up counting their losses.
The challenge for the contemporary historical novel is to navigate the ethical quicksands of representation across gaps of time and place, fraught racial histories, and changed understandings of identity and subjectivity, all at a time when underlying political positions appear increasingly entrenched and reactive. If mishandled the Australian historical novel runs the risk of re-inscribing some of the more problematic aspects of the colonial enterprise, and further dividing a nation in need of the broadest form of reconciliation. One of the really intriguing elements of Falling Backwards is that Jo speculates, and encourages deep thinking, about the type or style of fiction that might be up-to-the-task of ethically representing the Australian colonial experience in all its vexatious manifestations.
She does this by reading and discussing in the broad context of the history wars novels by Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Kim Scott and Rodney Hall. I won’t use this occasion to go any further in detailing the complex, readable, illuminating and generous discussion that ensues, other than to say that read individually or together, they are a remarkable sequence of essays that will be widely influential on subsequent critical work undertaken about these important writers. As someone who is just embarking on some work on Rodney Hall, I am certain that Falling Backwards will be my constant companion over coming months.
So I wish Falling Backwards all the best as it goes forward. It is impeccable scholarship, but also scholarship that is accessible and important, and should be read by anyone who wishes to engage with the place of literature in the national discourse.
Paul Genoni has taught at Curtin University since 1993, where he is an Associate Professor within the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry. He is a Past President of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and with Tanya Dalziell co-author of Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955 – 1964 (Monash University Publishing, 2018).