The Australian Voice in Fiction: What is it? What should it be?

According to judges’ comments about this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist the Australian voice in fiction is best represented by the past and the outback, and is male. I dispute and reject all three of these suppositions. While Australia’s past is very important I do not think it best represents what it is to be Australian nor what Australia means today. ‘The Outback’ also has little to no resonance for the majority of Australians today and I don’t think I even need to make an argument against the third, ridiculous claim about the Australian voice being male although I will point out the award is named after a woman not a man.

Australia’s past is multi-faceted, misinterpreted, misunderstood and often just plain missing. While I think it is vitally important that all Australians learn and understand more about their past it is equally important that the past is comprehensive and completely inclusive. But ignoring the present isn’t helpful either. Australia’s voice in fiction should include indigenous voices and those of migrants both past and present. We are a diverse culture and society and our voice in fiction should be a reflection of that.

To me ‘The Outback’ is a white European ideal that is overly romanticized. It often promotes the abhorrent idea of Terra Nullis and maligns indigenous culture. Urban and coastal Australia has much more relevance today than ‘The Outback’ and I think urban stories are much richer and multi-layered. I think the ‘Australian Voice’ is a multi-cultural one and an urbanized one. While Australia is a large land mass the overwhelming majority of Australians live on the coastal fringe in cities and towns. The so-called universal values of Australia, ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’, exist in  the urban modern-day as much as they did in the rural past. Look at the reaction to the floods in Brisbane and the thousands of people from all walks of life who turned out to help clean up the city.

When judges of our highest literary prize believe an old man from the country speaks for modern Australia is it little wonder our society sits on a precipice of intolerance. The Australian Voice should be getting readers to understand more about all the wonderful cultures that make up our society as well as gaining empathy for the different Peoples within our communities. The Australian Voice should question what being an Australian actually means and we as readers should constantly question what the Australian Voice is and what it should be.
What do you think the Australian voice is? And what should it be?

12 thoughts on “The Australian Voice in Fiction: What is it? What should it be?

  1. Also a factor is how many big Australian publishers are investing in literary fiction these days–not many. Small press are increasingly picking up the titles the majors reject, but they are much more vulnerable to the market. That said, the Franklin shortlist for the last two years has been safe, boringly literary, and guaranteed to annoy Miles herself, who was a strong feminist.

  2. One of the reasons I read less and less Australian ‘literary’ fiction is that it’s often of little relevance to me – blokey, historical and rural – all things that I’m not. Last year’s winner (Peter Temple’s TRUTH) was obviously a bit of an aberration being mostly urban and and definitely contemporary (though a very blokey story). Then again a lot of the female stuff that does get published is of the misery-lit genre and I’ve got little interest in that either.

  3. I know that this isn’t a particularly useful comment, but I don’t know what the solution is. I have only heard great things about the books that were shortlisted, but at the same time I can’t help but think that there MUST be some good Australian novel written by a woman published in the last year. Surely?

    1. I think there were. Literary awards in general have an unfortunate track record of under recognizing female writers which is why The Orange Prize was started.

  4. I have to admit that I haven’t read any of the three shortlisted novels and, from their descriptions, I may never read them. I did enjoy Peter Temple’s Truth, but I seem to remember its win causing some angst last year because it was a little out of left field.

    Would Miles Franklin approve of the 2011 selection? I suspect she’d wonder where all the accomplished female writers were hiding. However, being a woman in a predominantly male work place, I also feel gender shouldn’t come into the judging process. The diversity of the characters matters more for me than the diversity of the authors. It sounds like diversity is missing this year…

    As to the settting, I think rural stories still have a relevance today. Seeing writers like Fleur McDonald, Fiona Palmer and newcomer Karly Lane producing stories that resonate so well with readers I have to think others feel the same way. Sure our evolving culture has more to do with urban settings and the myriad of different ethnic influences which are now part of the fabric of Australia, but I still think there’s a sense of ‘belonging in that wide open land’ in the way we view ourselves.

    Writing awards may never capture the true voice of a nation. They may capture the idealised concept of what Australia was like or should be like in the mind of the judge, but I suspect for most readers the stories that win these prizes don’t feature on their must read list.

    A more contemporary take on Australia, and maybe even an optimistic ending, would be a welcome change!

  5. Unfortunately some Australian people and institutions are not up with a real view of the world today. The past is very much alive in Australia; the present has to hide in its shadow, hence the thinking and words of some of these groups, which are keeping us in the past.

    The Australian voice is every one of us, even those that reside in the past, but it seems they have a louder voice than most of us. I am constantly put aback at many of our institutional out of kilter promotions and events. There are some institutions that do a good job of representing a current view of Australia; like the S.H. Ervin Gallery that constantly promotes living artists. It’s my belief that the digital world will rollover the ones that do not move forward, or it make them rollover, and the sooner the better in my view.

  6. The Australian Voice in fiction often resembles the writer to a close degree. And in Australia most, not all, but most writers tend to be white anglo saxon, products of middle class backgrounds, decent education (increasingly university level), and (if the lists and review pages are to be believed) male.

    I’m female, but I tick the rest of those boxes. I have had whole other lives beyond that, and I don’t think it’s necessary for that background to circumscribe what or who I write about.

    Perhaps as much as the Australian Voice, it’s important to have an Australian Eye, one that sees a little more, that notices the way Australia looks today and includes that in the worlds we write about.

    I wonder perhaps, if fear of being told “But you’re not X,Y or Z, so how can you write about it/them/us” stops some writers from writing outside their own known life or experience. Whilst the old adage, write about what you know, is good advice, it shouldn’t stop us from writing about what is.

    Taking a risk and getting it wrong is surely better than ignoring the presence of a whole new (and in some cases very old) swathe of Australia and Australians.

    And what a fabulous image of that smartly dressed young woman you have up the top there, Jon. Is there a story behind that photo?

    1. Well put Pam. Your novel definitely tries to capture a different Australian voice. The other book that I think did a great job of giving a more modern, urban Australian voice was ORIGINAL FACE by Nicholas Jose.

      The photo is of course Miles Franklin, a woman.

    1. I’ve read BEREFT and know from others that the other two shortlist books are fantastic too. I’m just surprised at what the judges think the Australian Voice is. I think it is more diverse and think that there are more than just three books deserving of the shortlist this year

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