How to Read an Australian Short Story
Before I came to Australia in 2004, I had never read an Australian short story. I had never heard of Henry Lawson, despite Frank Hardy’s hyperbolic claim that Lawson “in the short stories written between 1889 and 1895, was beyond question the greatest short story writer in the world, surpassing Chekhov and De Maupassant.” (1981, p202). I had never even read any Patrick White, though I suspect this is something I have in common with most Australians. In fact, I had only ever read two Australian novels; For the Term of his Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey. I remember enjoying both these books, but thinking at the time that they were just too long. Years later, I would discover the short fiction of Clarke and Carey, and they would become two of my favourite short story writers.
I think my ignorance of the Australian short story was pardonable, considering I was born and brought up in Scotland, and attended a university in Glasgow that didn’t offer any courses on the short story, Scottish, Australian or otherwise. It wasn’t until shortly after arriving in Australia, then, that I read my first Australian short fiction. Browsing in a second-hand bookshop, I picked up a copy of The Penguin Century of Australian Stories, edited by Carmel Bird. This proved to be an inspired choice, as the anthology is an excellent introduction to the Australian short story, despite the rather odd decision to list the stories alphabetically by author, rather than chronologically. I hadn’t known quite what to expect from Australian short fiction, so I was delighted to see that among the many stories that could be termed ‘realist’ dealing as they did with ordinary people, and everyday events, and told in a straightforward style without formal or stylistic experimentation, there were quite a few stories that departed from the norm, such as The Man of Slow Feeling by Michael Wilding, or A Snake Down Under by Glenda Adams. I read these stories with great interest. Although I had written my own share of traditional, realist fiction, at that time I was becoming more and more interested in telling stories in less traditional ways, such as in the broken English of a Lithuanian schoolgirl, or in a story told in six different tenses.
However, it wasn’t long before I realised that while The Penguin Century of Australian Stories was an outstanding anthology, it was not entirely a representative one. The majority of the selected stories were from the 1980s and 1990s, obscuring the fact that most Australian short fiction, past and present, did not, in fact, greatly experiment in style, theme or form. In fact, the Australian short story tradition was generally one of realism in style and content. The most influential of all Australian short story writers appeared a diffident sixty-first in The Penguin Century of Australian Stories. I remember reading The Loaded Dog and not thinking much of it, preferring the Joan London piece which followed it. The writer of The Loaded Dog was Henry Lawson.
The impact of Henry Lawson on the Australian short story can’t be overstated. Before Lawson, there were, of course, Australian short story writers, such as Mary Fortune, or ‘Tasma,’ very talented though little read today. These writers would skilfully utilise the setting of the Australian bush, but would often people it with stock characters from English novels. Alternatively they could create convincing Australian characters, but forced them with varying degrees of success into pre-existing literary templates such as the Gothic or Detective story, imported from Britain and America. If Henry Lawson was not the first to successfully marry a uniquely Australian style and content (Marcus Clarke had done this before him), he was certainly the most successful. Lawson’s stories were told in an unpretentious, unadorned prose style that was, in some ways, astonishingly modern, and remains so to this day. Lawson’s minimalist style anticipated that of the more celebrated Ernest Hemingway’s by thirty years, as can be seen in the following two extracts, the first from a Lawson story, the second from a Hemingway.
“He turned away to put up the rails. The lower rail went into its place all right, but the top one had got jammed, and it stuck as though it was spiked. He worked the rail up and down and to and fro, took it under his arm and tugged it; but he might as well have pulled at one of the posts. Then he lifted the loose end as high as he could and let it fall- jumping back out of the way at the same time; this loosened it, but when he lifted it again it slid so easily and far into its socket that the other end came out, and fell, barking Brook’s knee. He swore a little, then tackled the rail again; he had the same trouble as before with the other end, but succeeded at last. Then he turned away, rubbing his knee.
Lizzie hadn’t smiled, not once; she watched him gravely all the while.
“Did you hurt your knee”? she asked without emotion.
“No. The rail did.”
She reflected solemnly for a while, and then asked him if it felt sore.
He replied rather briefly in the negative.
“They were always nasty. Awkward rails to put up,’ she remarked, after some more reflection.
Brook agreed, and then they turned their faces towards the homestead.”
(An Unfinished Love Story by Henry Lawson)
“She came in with the boat and ran the second line out the same way. Each time Nick set a heavy slab of driftwood across the butt of the road to hold it solid and propped it up at an angle with a small slab. He reeled in the slack line so the line ran taut out to where the bait rested on the sandy floor of the channel and set the click on the reel. When a trout, feeding on the bottom, took the bait it would run with it, taking line out of the reel in a rush and making the reel sing with the click on.
Marjorie rowed up to the point a little way so she would not disturb the line. She pulled hard on the oars and the boat went up the beach. Little waves came with it. Marjorie stepped out of the boat and Nick pulled the boat high up on the beach.
“What’s the matter, Nick?” Marjorie asked.
“I don’t know,’ Nick said, getting wood for a fire.
They made a fire with driftwood.
(The End of Something by Ernest Hemingway)
If the names of the authors were removed from these extracts, I would challenge any reader to decide which had been written in Australia in the 1890s, and which in America in the 1920s.
Lawson’s stories had little in common with the melodramatic ciphers that featured in other Australian short fiction of the time. His characters were not lords or pirates, or convicts, but farmers and their wives, swagmen and drovers, and they existed in a recognisably and uniquely Australian landscape, and spoke in an authentic Australian dialect. Lawson’s success and influence were not only due to his skill as a writer, but also owed something to when he was published. His stories, written at the turn of the twentieth century, were seized upon and celebrated by an Australian press and public eager to cement their newly federated nation’s individuality. Lawson provided a view of Australia that Australians found attractive, in a style that Australians found readable. For Michael Wilding this resulted in “a nationalist cult of the short story, with Henry Lawson as the particular native genius and fount and source. The Australian story began with Lawson, the myth read: so anthology after anthology of Australian short stories was produced beginning with Lawson.” (1978, p303). Wilding could perhaps be accused of overstating the case against Lawson, but it is true that many Australian short story anthologies ignore writers active in the form before Lawson, and in their selection favour stories written in a Lawsonian vein; that is, in a realist mode, and in a straightforward style.
The impact and uniqueness of Lawson’s short stories have been blunted by his many imitators. It can therefore be easy to forget that Lawson’s stories were, for their time, experimental; he was writing about subjects few had written about before in a way few had done before. His best stories, such as The Drover’s Wife and The Union Buries its Dead were instantly acclaimed, and recognised as something new in Australian fiction, and it didn’t take long before other writers followed the path Lawson had blazed, beginning ‘The Lawson Tradition’ in the Australian short story. Foremost among Lawson’s contemporaries was Steele Rudd, whose seemingly endless series of On Our Selection short stories appropriated Lawson’s commonplace themes, unpretentious style and bush setting, but replaced his skill and pathos with ever more wearying slapstick and sentimentality. Other, and better writers followed Lawson, almost always working skilfully within the parameters he had set, but seldom challenging them. There were many great Australian short stories written in the first half of the twentieth century, but to even the most attentive reader they tend, if read one after another, to blend into one long story told in a determinedly realist style, with a bush setting, working class characters, and a screen door eternally banging in the wind. The short stories selected for the 1967 anthology titled Short Stories of Australia: The Lawson Tradition, demonstrated the enduring, and sometimes suffocating, influence of Lawson’s style and subject matter, at least through to the 1940s. For the editors of this anthology, the Australian short story, quite simply, began with Henry Lawson.
Though Patrick White was perhaps cruel in describing this style of writing as ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism,’ it can’t be denied that there is a certain feeling of ‘brownness’ to a lot of Australian short fiction up until the 1970s. Lawson had staked out an original territory, but his followers over farmed and exhausted it. In the US and Europe, by the 1920s and 1930s the modernist movement had abandoned or innovated many of the literary conventions that Australian fiction was to cling to for far too long. Whereas realist writers saw reality as something that existed independent of the observer, modernist writers saw it as existing only so far as it was experienced and refracted through individual consciousness. Thus, in the great modernist novels such as The Sound and the Fury, Parade’s End and To the Lighthouse plot and time were no longer lineal, as reality was distorted through the eyes of the characters. Yet in this era of great literary experimentation, the Australian short story, with a few exceptions (such as The Persimmon Tree by Marjorie Barnard, and the tall tales of Dal Stivens) continued in Lawson’s dryly realist style, following laconic characters who lived in the bush, and a plot that plodded from beginning to middle to end, almost always in that order. It could be argued that modernism did not finally arrive in Australia until the novels and stories of Patrick White, and it had barely settled down before postmodernism followed in the 1970s.
Postmodernism, rather than modifying realist conventions, abandoned them. The idea of any kind of ‘reality’ was called into question, as was traditional fiction’s ability to represent it in any meaningful way. Self-reflexivity came to the fore; no longer were writers to conceal themselves from the reader, but instead they became part of the story, commenting on and criticising it. In Australian terms the 1970s saw a revolution in subject matter and form. Out was the bush, in was the city. Out was the screen door, in was the hash pipe. Out was ‘D-mn!’ and in was ‘Fuck!’ Out were realist stories, in were stories told through chain letters, fantasies, a hundred different forms. Short story writers such as Michael Wilding, Frank Moorhouse and Vicki Viidikas broached topics that would have been taboo only a few years before. This new freedom in exploring different themes was mirrored in the exploration of genres and forms long neglected or sidelined in Australia, including science fiction and the surreal. In this decade, Moorhouse, Peter Carey and Murray Bail produced a number of brilliant short stories, perhaps the best ever produced in this country. Though the Australian short story would return to its realist roots in the 1980s and beyond, it would never be as ‘brown’ again.
While Australian short fiction was (as suggested above) dominated by men for much of the 1970s, the latter part of that decade and the one that followed saw a flowering of brilliant stories, realist and experimental, written by women. From the misfits populating Thea Astley’s north Queensland in Hunting the Wild Pineapple to the stories of liars and writers in Glenda Adam’s The Hottest Night of the Century and the rehabilitation of a more modern realism in the stories of Elizabeth Jolley and Helen Garner, the 1980s remained an exciting time for Australian short fiction. Throughout the 1990s and the twenty first century realism came to reassert itself as the predominant literary mode of Australian short fiction, but though the experimental was never to again attain the dominance it enjoyed in the 1970s, it maintained a steady presence in the work of writers such as David Brooks, A.S. Patric, Ania Walwicz, Tom Cho and others.
All of which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to An Australian Short Story. I can’t quite remember when I had the idea for this piece, but I know it was in the middle of an Australian short fiction reading binge. I had just finished reading several anthologies published in the 1940s and 1950s, and then, without knowing quite what was coming, leapt into one of the great, formally daring collections of the 1970s, Murray Bail’s Contemporary Portraits and Other Stories. In my imagination, the traditional themes and style of the earlier stories collided with Bail’s playfulness, and I wondered if it would be possible to write a short story entirely made up of lines from other Australian short stories. Writing under constraints was something that had interested me for a long time. I had read and enjoyed several of the books which had emerged from the French Oulipo movement, which encouraged writers to take risks in style and form. Georges Perec's A Void, for example, is a novel written without using the letter e. The Ouliopians believed that writing under a constraint would actually free up a writer’s creativity, and this proved to be the case in writing An Australian Short Story.
First, I visited the university library, and borrowed all the Australian short story collection and anthologies I could find. Added to my own books, including my old favourite The Penguin Century of Australian Stories, I had a bank of perhaps a thousand short stories to choose from. One additional constraint I set myself was that I could only use one line from one particular story, though there was nothing to stop me using multiple stories from the same writer. (When reading An Australian Short Story again recently for this anthology, I noticed that I had inadvertently broken this constraint by having two lines from the same story by Elizabeth Harrower. I’ve decided to let them stand, as I love those lines, and after all, rules are meant to be broken.) There were no restrictions on when the stories were written; only that the authors were Australian. I spent several evenings going through this bank of stories with a notepad by my side, noting down lines that struck me for any reason. I soon came to realise that the constraints I was writing under posed a number of unique problems, the first of which was the plot. Usually, before I begin writing, I have to know the broad outlines of the plot, and preferably the first and last line of the story. But coming up with a plot, and finding lines to flesh it out proved to be impossible. Instead, the plot would have to write itself. Also, the number of characters in the story would have to be limited, and the characters could not have names, as it was unlikely I would find enough stories that included a character called, ‘John’ for example.
Soon I had perhaps thirty or forty lines, which I then clustered together under different headings such as ‘Setting’ ‘Description of him’ ‘Description of her’ ‘Movement’ and so on. I then trawled through more stories, noting down additional lines that might be used. This proved to be a laborious process, as I not only had to keep track of the line, but the story it came from, and who wrote it. Finally, the selection process was finished, and I had found a few hundred promising sentences that I thought I could use. By then I had some idea of the plot; it would be a love story. Now I knew what I wanted to happen in the story, I dreaded ‘writing’ it. I thought the reassembling of the lines into a coherent whole would be a nightmare, but it proved to be the easiest part of the process. Within only a couple of hours, whether through luck or good judgement, each of the sentences I had found seemed to slot neatly into place to create a story, of sorts.
There were gaps, of course, sections that required an action or a line of dialogue that I hadn’t yet found. In these cases I returned to the anthologies and collections, and combed the pages looking for a particular movement or description that would fit in the blank space of my story. This could have been frustrating, but instead it was strangely addictive, like putting together the final pieces of a jigsaw. At last, I only had one essential line which I was unable to find- I needed something to show that the woman had left the man. It was the turning point of the story. I hadn’t intended in using any lines from my own work in An Australian Short Story, but finally I grew sick of searching for the perfect line, and settled for a suitable one from my story Flinch. The first and last lines of An Australian Short Story were the last to be ‘written’, the opposite of how I usually work. I wanted to begin the story with a writer who was not afraid to experiment with form, and so I chose Glenda Adams, and I wanted to end with the most influential Australian short story writer of all, Henry Lawson, and the most famous line from his most famous story.
I had originally intended for this piece to be a satire. An Australian Short Story was titled The Australian Short Story for a long time, to suggest the idea that this piece, with its bush setting, and sentimental love story, was somehow representative of a certain uniformity in Australian short fiction. But as I finished the story I was surprised and pleased to see it had developed into more of a celebration than a satire. I can say without boasting that An Australian Short Story is beautifully written, with memorable imagery and some marvellous lines of dialogue. I like to think that this story proves the Australian short story tradition is not as dreary and dun coloured as White maintained; rather, if examined just a little more closely, it becomes a glorious patchwork.
Frank Hardy quote from Australian Literary Studies, vol 10.2, October 1981 “The Contemporary Australian Short Story Special Issue.”
An 1967 anthology titled Short Stories of Australia: The Lawson Tradition ed Douglas Stewart, Angus and Robertson, 1967, Sydney
Michael Wilding quote from ‘The Tabloid Story Pocket Book” edited by Michael Wilding