Bonny Cassidy Reviews Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead

22 February 2016

Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead Nicholas Birns, ed.
University of Sydney Press, 2015

As Feature Reviews Editor and sometime reviewer for Cordite Poetry Review it is an unusual (and therefore fun) privilege to consider a title in which poetry is critically addressed in the company of other forms. Too often it is it either quarantined within poetry-only criticism, or mentioned as an embarrassing aside to discussions of prose. In his neFw critical study, Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead, Nicholas Birns explicitly seeks to address this convention:

I wish to demolish the old canard that, whereas fiction pertains to society and can be a reading of the culture, poetry speaks to inward states of experience. Both genres can do this, but they can also assume other roles … In the twenty-first century, the aesthetic and the public have to mix; they cannot be cordoned off from one another.

This century, Birns suggests, offers problems for literature that are simply too urgent for piffling with formal silos. In Birns’s vision, exemplary Australian prose and poetry are united in their responsiveness to the ‘unique challenge’ of neoliberalism and its ‘threats to the imagination’. Contemporary Australian Literature sets out to define those challenges and, through analyses of select authors, to demonstrate how the written word is being wielded in reply.

Birns traces Australian literature’s resistance to the ‘strictly economic measure of humanity’, carefully narrating how, from the Keating government onwards, ‘global trends’ of capitalist policy extended not only into party politics but through the publishing industry, academic organisation, arts funding and prize culture. Birns is particularly interested, too, in how the last three decades of scholarship and criticism of Australian literature have been influenced by global events in theory, terrorism and virtual communication. The very notion of a ‘global’ event, and an expectation that Australia be a part of it, he explains, may be seen as a symptom of neoliberalism − an ideology that defines success by temporality. Birns shows us, within this contemporary neoliberal paradigm, the still-living possibility of plurality in Australian writing.

In order to do so, he creates a comparison with texts of ‘late modernity’ in Australia, which ‘take place (in the 1950s and 1960s) just before neoliberalism’. Going ‘one or two generations back’, Birns first focuses on the works of Christina Stead and Elizabeth Harrower as early foreshadowings and critiques of the emerging neoliberal moment. He asserts that this view of their writing has been overlooked, in favour of more simplistic readings. In one example, Birns gently deflates Jonathan Franzen for lacking an ‘informed opinion’ on Stead’s place in Australian literary culture, that is, lacking sensitivity to how her writing is a complex intersection of her nationality and sex with Marxism. Birns is enthusiastic about transnational influences and movements within Australian writing, but wishes to emphasise through this book how the field is internally constructed − as a ‘networked’ tradition, in Phillip Mead’s terms. Birns’s holistic view of Australian literary history is clear-eyed − a product of his thorough research, certainly, but perhaps also an advantage of the alien critic. This perspective is balanced by his critique of neoliberalism, for it is with his own (and our) temporal inhabitation of that condition that he colours the history and texts before him. Informed by the recent past, his critical vision is quite true to the literary act itself, which makes its reply to vast tradition through more immediate, microscopic fragments.

Contemporary Australian Literature features a somewhat varied choice of primary texts, though mostly confined to the prose novel. In his wider scholarship Birns is remarkable for his omnivorous interests and output. Through his editorship of Antipodes, co-editing (with Rebecca McNeer) of Companion to Twentieth Century Australian Literature (Camden House, 2007), and his contribution of numerous scholarly articles and papers in Australia, the United States and beyond, the New York City-based Birns is well-known in Australian literary studies as a major international representative of the field. His areas of interest and publishing, furthermore, stretch historically and culturally from Latin American literature, to twentieth century theory and Early Modern literature. In Contemporary Australian Literature Birns’s critical flexibility can be seen in how easily he draws poetry and prose into dialogue with one another’s ideas and histories. In a beautifully insightful passage on JM Coetzee, for instance, appears a poem by John Mateer. The chapter on Stead begins with a deft gloss of Les Murray’s view of economics.

These examples, however, also point out the secondary position that poetry occupies within Birns’s study as a whole. This shouldn’t be the case, given that his critical insights attempt to interrupt the limited economic segregation of poetry as ‘loser’ from prose as ‘winner’. As Birns notes, the local independent publishing scene is to some extent ‘above the market’, with the conglomerate rush of the early 2000s having been replaced more recently by the growth of small presses such as Black Inc., Giramondo and Puncher & Wattmann. To this landscape we must add the persistence and growth of online and digital publishing. Resulting from both phenomena are instances of ‘genuine transnationalism’ – rather than the corporate variety – in writing and reading habits. Furthermore, argues Birns, ‘the solution to the problems of the contemporary lie in affect’, not in polemic lamentation of neoliberalism. Poetry benefits from each of these conditions, and Birns interprets some compelling recent examples. I want to hone in on those examples, with respect to their valuable contribution to Birns’s thesis, but also with consideration of the book’s relatively limited attention to contemporary Australian poetry as an ideal movement of affective response to neoliberalism.

Whilst poetry is called upon throughout to provide illuminating asides, the book’s sustained analytic engagement with specific poets and poems is corralled into its second section, which is focused on how ‘feeling takes up, imperfectly and asymmetrically, the ethical burden previously borne by more direct modes of social comment’. Birns explores three feelings in particular: ‘rancour, idealism and concern’. A ‘late modern’ instance of rancour is located in the work of AD Hope, which Birns sees as movingly innocent of the neoliberal ‘sovereignty’ yet to be realised in Australia. There was comfort for Hope in satirising the left, suggests Birns, since an ongoing threat to the left could not then be imagined. By way of a wonderfully thorough consideration of Christos Tsiolkas, Birns then turns to Ouyang Yu and John Kinsella. Kinsella has been a champion of Yu’s writing for some time, thus Birns’s pairing is illuminating. Perhaps the arch example of contemporary, anti-neoliberal rancour in Australian literature, Yu’s poetic voice offers Birns a rich mine of affect. As a dual poet and novelist, too, Yu evidences Birns’s lack of interest in a market-made hierarchy of forms. As a non-white voice Yu’s writing is decidedly uninterested in celebrating ‘the diversification of society’, or in the text performing more than the moment of its resolution into language. As Birns notes, Yu’s work is characterised by ‘searing pessimism’ towards the individual’s power against ‘existing social conditions and prejudices’. It should be pointed out, however, that Yu’s rancour is not unwaveringly unhappy or angry − there are moments of elation and relieving humour, including in his most recent collection, Fainting with Freedom (Five Islands Press, 2015), which puncture the reader’s expectations of the poet to solve society ‘other than through small acts of reading, writing’. The poem itself, then, is the way to resist the seeming inevitability of economic and political paradigms. An example of the ‘genuine transnationalism’ that Birns perceives in the ‘near past’ of Australian literature, in Yu’s poetics ‘language is freed from adequacy to float towards heedless, impulsive, ad hoc creativity. Normally stable notions of the authorial body and language thus become fungible’. As Yu explores the cracks that ‘bad English’ makes through the authoritative language, Birns wonders if the ‘new English’ created by migrants and multilinguists resists the neoliberal categorisation of the world into winners and losers. Yu’s ‘insistence on plurality has a cost’, of course, which is to be declared a loser by the market of the canon − ‘a popular readership’, institutional favour, ‘acclaim and awards’. He is, however, well-studied, and this bodes positively for his ongoing impact on a poetics of plurality. Critical curiosity and engagement, though they may not be as public as some other forms of reader interest, attend to the kind of affective complexity communicated by Yu’s work.

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