from the editor's desk

Review: Telling Stories


Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, Eds., Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012, Monash University Publishing, 2013.

I confess that this book kept me up quite late on successive nights. I did have one very small contribution to its 630 odd pages. Nevertheless, I had imagined I would just dip dutifully in and grab what I could. Instead, I became something of an addict, no sooner finishing one “story” than finding myself borne on, promising myself just “one more” and, before I could blink, condemning the next day to a more than usually sluggish start. What caused this unusual reaction? Such books normally put me to sleep, not keep me awake.

For one thing, it is not often that a book is more than it purports to be, at least in academic letters. In their introduction to this major new work of Australian literary history, the editors Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni modestly cast the anthology as a “cabinet of curiosities” or as a guileless collection of “stories” to which humans have a unique propensity. There are 86 entries from 64 different authors strung out like beads on a time-line stretching 77 years from 1935 to 2012. These “stories” are in fact, mini-essays; episodes of Australian literary life, roughly 2500 words each, written by leading Australian literary scholars and other public intellectuals.

So, to take just one example from each decade, we have for 1939, Bridie McCarthy’s essay on the “feedback loops” of Kenneth Slessor’s great poem, “Five Bells”. Ten years later, for 1949, Tanya Dalziell recalls Hitchcock’s frankly awful colonial costume drama, Under Capricorn, set in Australia but filmed in a London studio. For 1952, Philip Butters considers the “after-lives” of C.J. Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), notably its staging as a ballet at the Melbourne Ballet Guild. For 1963, Rebecca Giggs addresses “Nuclear literature after Maralinga”, and for 1972, Damien Barlow muses on the “Porno-politics” of Frank Moorhouse’s influential short-story collection, The Americans, Baby. More recently, we have for 1988, a review of “bicentennial fictions” by Jo Jones, and for 1992, Carmen Lawrence reflecting on Keating’s Redfern address. In this century, Darren Jorgensen takes us to the exhibition in 2000 of Indigenous art at the Hermitage, and Jack Teiwes sends us back to the 2007 stage hit, Keating! – “the musical Australia had to have.”

One can immediately see that the form of this book prompts us to see Australian letters as a series of moments. The forerunner to Telling Stories was the 2009 publication of A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors for Harvard University Press. That book hopped and skipped its way through 500 years of American literary history, dropping down on select years to recall some seemingly arbitrary literary anecdote. The effect, both in Telling Stories and its American predecessor, was gossipy, whimsical and extremely readable. By making no great claim for any particular moment, these individual entries were freed from the burden of having to represent history fairly – to separate the important from the merely incidental, to trace in proper detail the influences and effects, to render an analysis of “key” texts, and all the usual duties of scholarship. Indeed, the form of these shortened essays, and the fact of their having to do no solemn duty to the gods of cultural history, lends to the writing an undeniable quality of lightness. Each of them carries their considerable erudition without the usual trudge that accompanies the more official organs of thought and publication. This is apparent, not just in the “lay” contributors, but even amongst my fellow academics, who it turns out, when given the correct permission, can actually write quite sparkling prose.

The paradox for Telling Stories is that the result is far from unscholarly. What we get in Telling Stories is not anti-scholarship, but a genuinely innovate form of knowledge. The last time this happened in Australian literature was the publication of the Penguin New Literary History of Australia in 1988 under the general editorship of Laurie Hergenhan and Bruce Bennett. The PNLHA replaced the evaluative framework of New Criticism with a native variant of New Historicism. The publication split the field into an entirely new set of research questions and set the paradigm for Australian literary study for the next 25 years; indeed, it persists today in such excellent modern monuments as The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), edited by Nicholas Jose.

In some ways, Telling Stories, is a further intensification of the gesture in the PNLHA:  a greater emphasis on the determination of history (now using the “year” to drive the intervention), a greater collapse between high and low culture, an even more minute interest in cultural “feedback loops” and “after-lives”, an ever sharper awareness of Australia’s immersion in globalised culture. In all of these ways, the book represents a decisive counterpoint to both the nativist and New Critical accounts of Australian literature that jostled for primacy in the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. But it also breaks with the PNLHA by abandoning all outward reference to periodisation. In this way Telling Stories is distinctly new in a manner that has few parallels. It seems to have announced a new project by legitimising and, more importantly, exemplifying a way of thinking about cultural texts that will energise future critical work. When I started my PhD in Australian literature in the mid-90s, the PNLHA was something of a bible to me. Without exactly being conscious of it, I read and re-read the various entries and marveled at the world it disclosed. The subtlety and the command the authors had of their subjects created in me a model for the kind of scholar I wanted to be. It also, in the deepest sense, gave me a picture both of Australian literature and Australian literary study. I suspect Telling Stories will have a similar effect in years to come.

Telling Stories is a notably cosmopolitan publication, delightfully alive to the nuances of cultural life. To read it is not just to accumulate anecdotes, but to actually obtain a deep sense of Australian cultural history. Here, Australia is not a lost civilization developing autochthonously out of its rough soil, but an open, permeable field subject to both internal and external influences, importing and exporting. In presenting their history as a series of footnotes with no apparent master text, Dalziell and Genoni (and all the contributors of Telling Stories) have produced the first, belated, post-modern literary history of Australia. It is a repertoire of subaltern gossip that sustains the field in glorious complexity.

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