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

By | 22 February 2016

It may be a strength, not a failure, that Birns’s analysis in Contemporary Australian Literature suggests or implies many texts that are not mentioned, for this demonstrates the wider relevance of his argument. Similarly, his ability to draw new comparisons between texts is exciting and productive. I don’t wish to overplay the secondary place of poetry in the study at the risk of overshadowing Birns’s attention to Hope, Yu, Kinsella, Brown and Maiden, which is insightful and welcome. Poetry’s place in this book, however, deserves to be equal to prose for some key reasons. Firstly, the good portion of contemporary Australian poetry sits outside of the capitalist market that Birns seeks to challenge through this study. It is at present a hugely prolific field, innovative, locally networked yet transnational in its influences and publications, and linked to alternative publishing strategies. Secondly, from Charles Altieri to Susan Stewart and more, the study of poetry and affect is a well-established field in late-twentieth century and early twenty-first century theory and poetics. In this thinking, poetry has a unique ability to illustrate and advance Birns’s argument for affect as a language of resistance.

Contemporary Australian Literature is bookended by two accounts: a preface that briefly sketches Birns’s early encounters with Australia and its literature; and an afterword on the personal impact of JS Harry, Syd Harrex and Ouyang Yu, plus a closing aside to Vivian Smith. A nod to the importance of poetry to Birns and his view of Australian literature, these remarks contribute a rare personal note. Stylistically, Contemporary Australian Literature adopts the largely featureless, mild prose style that characterises conventional scholarly writing. The writing is clear and direct, which suits the sense of urgency within this project; and Birns infrequently but sensitively uses anecdotes to introduce and illustrate his critical research. On the whole, though, Birns keeps himself out of the picture. I can only speculate about whether or not the scope or organisation of the book was subject to its own set of market-based limitations, but certainly Birns’s investment and interest in poetry has been demonstrated in other of his scholarship and criticism. Whatever the case, related to its preoccupation with prose is the book’s implication that ‘literature’ remains conventionally exclusive of drama and cinema. Moreover, hardly any short stories are addressed, although Chapter Four looks at trends in the length of books, and how these correlate to market and critical notions about value as ‘heft’ (wherein Birns mentions in passing the verse novel as a ‘flourishing’ contemporary Australian form). Nonfiction is also excluded from the conversation; so that while Birns looks at Hannah Kent’s historical fiction, he is not able to address more broadly how Australian writing may be interrupting these popular genres.

And yet this study remains refreshingly contemporary; it is able to reach back into the cultural history of Australian modernity, to inform literary and publishing events right up to the past year. Birns describes the difficulty of taking this position – in which ‘We often find the deep past more accessible than the near past’ – because the near past easily becomes seen as a misdirection in need of correction or rejection. The contribution of Contemporary Australian Literature is political: this is a project of optimism. It’s a pity that its subtitle, ‘A world not yet dead’, appears only on the title page, since it makes a bold statement of Birns’s viewpoint. The phrase refers to his feeling of hope as a scholar of Australian literature − an oasis, a survivor in an otherwise dying landscape of critical and philosophical attitudes. One might take this optimism to be a view that only a non-national could assume − that Australia is somehow un-besmirched by problems of defensive and offensive outlook, close-mindedness and calcification. Alternatively, I feel that Birns’s optimism mirrors that of a younger, local generation of writers and thinkers; a post-boomer feeling that aesthetic and critical potential can be found in the backyard or out in the street, freely conversant with trends and issues further afield. As Michael Farrell notes in Writing Australian Unsettlement (Palgrave, 2015): ‘In a relatively small literary culture, any overview tends to have a significant impact’. But like Farrell, Birns is interested in the overview less as a survey, and more as a way of reading onwards. As Birns writes in his afterword, ‘The Australia one loves is always dying, always skipping away’. It’s a profoundly moving statement, as significant to the remote critic as to the locally immersed participant; it can be taken as both a theory of identity and as a poetics.

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