The tendency to look overseas for great literary works is hardly new. The notion of ‘cultural cringe’ (coined by AA Phillips in 1950) describes an Australian assumption that ‘the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article’. We suppose it’s being done better internationally, and look to international markets as arbiters of taste. We measure our own successes against international works—both in terms of sales and reception—and maintain the baseline assumption that international work represents the highest level of achievement.
Emmett Stinson charts the evolution of the cultural cringe in a more recent context, describing it as a ‘national will to fail that became a self-fulfilling prophecy, stymieing Australia’s attempts to forge a national culture’. It’s not hard to see this at work within nonfiction. Overseas works are now more accessible than ever and are rapidly becoming global hits almost instantaneously. This exposure means many Australian readers have tastes saturated by international literature, and I recently became painfully aware that my own are no exception. On my list of nonfiction-writing heroes, Australian writers had been mostly shuffled aside to make room for the hottest new thing coming out of the States, or sometimes the UK. Looking up to so many international writers as my heroes indicates some of the difficulty I have conceiving of myself as an Australian nonfiction writer.
NonfictioNOW is a biennial gathering that has come to sit somewhere between an academic conference and a literary festival focussed solely on nonfiction. It’s one of my favourite places. It’s about how we write nonfiction, why we do it, the implications of having written the world, of making life the stuff of true writing, and what ‘true writing’ might even mean.
At the three I’ve attended (Melbourne, Flagstaff and Reykjavik), I shared space (intellectual, physical) with writers whose nonfiction has shaped my writing practice—heavyweights like David Shields, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Ander Monson. I was utterly starstruck by these international authors—they were real; I could see them moving in 3D. I was given invaluable opportunities to approach these writers, and to build relationships with people practising my craft all over the world. Part of the goal of NonfictioNOW is about international cross-pollination, and this is clear in past (and future) programming of Australian, Norwegian and Icelandic keynote speakers alongside the big American names, as well as the conference’s stated mission to ‘facilitate international diversity’. Drawing writers, readers and academics alike, these conferences feel heated and deeply important. They are opportunities for perspective shifts.
Yet, at each of these conferences, I noted the particular reverence given to US authors. They were the pioneers of the creative and experimental nonfiction genre, and obviously the experts—right? Of course, I don’t think this is unique to the conference itself. Rather, the conference is broadly representative of the wider community as a whole. It’s a microcosm—a pool of international readers and writers who (roughly) embody something broader. The US is viewed as the frontline of a genre, and everything else is trickle-down.
The US is seen as the promised land for creative nonfiction. It’s the birthplace of much of the experimental work stretching the genre, and has a market more commercially viable than our own. But the extent of which the US has a monopoly on the creative and experimental nonfiction genre affects how we write, as certain authors become tropes to mimic. Mel Campbell’s recent essay on what she calls ‘experimentalism’ states that ‘certain styles and approaches have become emblematic’, and she bemoans this kind of copycatting and the normalisation of the experimental:
Certain key authors, mostly North American, recur as reference points with such frequency that I wonder if Heti, Koestenbaum, Kraus, Nelson, Als and Jamison will soon nestle into the literary canon in the same way as modernists Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett.
The size and volume of the US nonfiction genre is impressive though. There are strong collectives discussing and sharing one another’s work, supporting their community and seeking collaboration. The benefits are obvious—these communities make events like NonfictioNOW possible. In comparison to the US though, the 10–15 writers representing Australia in Flagstaff, and double-that-or-more of us in Reykjavik, seemed small. The small representation was unsurprising, as barriers to access for overseas conferences are very real. But what was more surprising was my own ignorance of the small number of Australians in attendance, compared to my knowledge of the international authors.
Seeing Australian writers alongside others from all over the globe in this context has highlighted for me the distinct flavour of the Australian voice. It becomes plainly apparent away from home—something about reflective empathy, curiosity and flexibility in source material, and comfort with a DIY aesthetic. My lack of familiarity with some of the Australian writers felt shameful, and also like both a great loss and a great opportunity—I’d missed out on so much, but had so very much to discover, too.
Who has decided on this state of deference to the US is unclear—perhaps it’s just the after-effects of the longer history of commercially viable creative and experimental nonfiction in the States. While important work has happened in the US with regards to the burgeoning genre, with that work both foundational and accomplished, we’re now at a point where the genre is finding its feet in international contexts. Strangely, we somehow expect it all to look the same, or adhere to the same (in this case, paradoxically amorphous) conventions, despite its newfound global reach.
As Stinson asks of cultural cringe, ‘what if measuring Australian writing in the mirror of global culture means that we only get back a reflection of other already established traditions? And what if books that don’t adhere to the specifications of an approved style face the prospect of being ignored by audiences altogether?’
How are Australian writers meant to carve out a national sense of the genre and have their work reach its intended audience? To do so, we must detach from the cultural cringe. We can still appreciate the amazing work being produced overseas and recognise its invaluable contributions to the history of creative nonfiction, while also making space for and celebrating the work that writers are doing at home to redefine the genre. We must be open to what this redefinition might mean in antipodean terms.
David Shields’ Reality Hunger is both indefinite and hugely useful. It contains, among other gems, this (which he, in turn, nicked off someone else noted in the appendix as ‘Paul’):
The roominess of the term nonfiction: an entire dresser labelled nonsocks.
It’s this roominess—this sloshing about in uncertainty and doubt, the incredible buoyancy of possibility in this space—that has me so deeply invested in the form. It’s expansive, and due to its collaborative and associative nature, it continues to grow. It’s a safe space, a kind space, a forgiving space, a space in which things break and are sometimes mended and renamed.
I’m sad that this Shields/Paul snippet is my favourite definition. I wish I had an Australian equivalent to cite here, but I am still learning.
This nonsocks definition of the nature of nonfiction might not be from an Australian source, but Australian nonfiction writers are embracing its message through their practice.
Lee Kofman’s 2012 survey of nonfiction in Australia succinctly captures both pioneers and what she calls ‘newcomers’ at the time, providing a historical overview of ‘new journalism’ and creative nonfiction in Australia. The writers Kofman selects, and others writing in the same school, are free of the tall poppy syndrome that has for so long (and often still) insisted that to write one’s own story, or to place oneself within a narrative, assumes too much self-importance. The first push of creative nonfiction (the time of writers like those that Kofman labels ‘pioneers’ and ‘veterans’) saw fact meet fiction (for example, Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, 1990), increased presence of the mundane and fallible narrator (as in Helen Garner’s The First Stone, 1995), and stories from women (Robyn Davidson’s Tracks, 1980).
Kofman’s newcomers, meanwhile, are skilled and accomplished writers, whose work expands upon that first push of the nonfiction genre in a new direction. The evolution of an Australian nonfiction follows in much the same pattern as shifts in nonfiction elsewhere—centring the personal; using conventions more often associated with novels: dialogue, scene, artful language, and the like; moving toward memoir over auto/biography; perspective and poetry over capital-T truth and newsworthiness.
We’re now seeing the emergence of what could be described as Australia’s second wave of new nonfiction. In this next push, Australian creative and experimental nonfiction has moved towards centring more marginalised voices as well as stories making more risky experiments with style, form, and source material. Work is shifting from textual to visual and multimedia (Lucinda Strahan’s essay ‘Soft clothes and sneakers’ in The Lifted Brow 37, or Eloise Grills’ recent self-writing and self-drawing essay, and the fabulous BODY LANGUAGE project from Betanarratives).
Stories are more fragmented and require deeper engagement from the reader—uncertainty features highly. These works may lean toward poetry (as in Quinn Eades’ All the Beginnings, or Rebecca Giggs’ ‘Whale fall’), or intertwine personal experience with reportage or criticism (as in Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy, or Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s viral essay ‘Bad writer’). These features aren’t necessarily unique to Australia—changes in technology, reading styles, the advent of globalisation and generational shifts in attitudes mean that nonfiction writing around the world is striking out in new directions. Works of Australian nonfiction writers overlap with that of writers from overseas in this sense, but also diverges from the thinking that’s happening elsewhere. There are similarities, and that’s a comfort. Australian nonfiction, however, also has a distinctive flavour.
In a country where we’re taught that our own work is bound to be inferior to anything published internationally, where we either doubt our own work or are cut down to size by those fearing the tall poppies—in this climate, the existence of a vibrant and risky Australian nonfiction itself speaks to resilience, insistence and doggedness.
Australia is big—it’s geographically and culturally disparate and diverse. Densely-populated coastal fringes contrast sparsely-populated inland areas. The Australian experience is as wide and varied as our continent. Increasingly, Australian nonfiction becomes a topographic and psychogeographic project, particularly of Sydney and its sprawling western suburbs.
Australians live in a climate where many struggle to own anything (housing, parliament) and inhabit a colonised land where a sense of ownership is problematic for most. It’s a place where the nearness of the world’s ecological peril can be suffocating. The importance of polyphonic voice and fragmented narrative, ownership of stories and cobbling together real-world detritus in meaningful ways has different significance on Australian ground than elsewhere.
An Australian nonfiction is marked by all these things and more.
Australian literary journals are increasingly willing to embrace formally risky work, and links between the academic sphere and literary culture are becoming stronger. While this can sometimes make for a denser reading experience, it also favours risk. Academia’s emphasis on the production of new knowledge means that risk is encouraged, and even failure can be fruitful. The valuing of risk and chance-taking, and the embrace of potential failure, are difficult to justify within a more mainstream publishing industry, and herein lies Australia’s bind with nonfiction. Works carrying that same riskiness are difficult to commercialise in this publishing landscape. Unlike America, which has its champion in Graywolf Press, we have no champion for experimental and creative nonfiction in Australia. However, independent publishing houses are leaning in that direction.
Late in 2017, Giramondo published the formally experimental and physically beautiful Mirror Sydney from Vanessa Berry, comprised of observational essays and hand-drawn maps. Around the same time they also published Tracker, a 650-page artfully crafted compendium of transcribed stories about Indigenous activist Tracker Tilmouth. This unique book has been embraced by both readers and prizes. In its introduction, Alexis Wright notes how Tracker follows ‘an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story’. These projects are distinctly Australian.
Meanwhile, the work of Brow Books (the book publishing arm of The Lifted Brow) shows promise to pave this way in the future, with forthcoming nonfiction from Maria Tumarkin and a recent call for nonfiction manuscripts. Journals like Rabbit, The Lifted Brow, The Sydney Review of Books and Griffith Review are helping to encourage readerships of this kind of work. Local prizes are seeking daring nonfiction—The Horne Prize, Calibre Essay Prize, Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers and The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction are only a few of the essay prizes currently on offer.
The Stella Prize is also an important boost for work that pushes boundaries. The prize doesn’t use categories and instead judges fiction and nonfiction together, making space for hybrid forms and genre-defying works, allowing for categorically ‘not-quite’ works to gain the same recognition as those that fit more neatly into categories.
Visibility is on the rise for experimental and creative nonfiction in Australia, but it has a long way to go before young writers at home begin to think of their heroes first as other Australian writers, rather than those idols from overseas.
A similar problem existed in the Australian Young Adult genre, which has gained new audiences after the introduction of the #LoveOzYA hashtag. This grassroots movement mobilised its writers and readership via Twitter, boosting the profile and tapping into an already enthusiastic and supportive community around the genre. Danielle Binks, writing about the emergence of the hashtag, cites ‘a new problem facing Australian youth literature, which is being underrated in its own market by global forces’—there’s that cultural cringe again. This is very much the case with Australian nonfiction, too. But as #LoveOzYA shows, readers are not a small part of the puzzle, and markets are driven by buyers.
A comparatively small publishing industry means that ‘there’s no market’ seems like a reasonable defence for not backing newer and more challenging writers of nonfiction at home. Yes, Australia’s small compared to the United States, the UK or Europe. But small is not nonexistent, and overseas rights for books sell all the time. Why not make them for risky works that stand up to our international counterparts? Why not have those international audiences looking toward Australia and admiring our reformulation of the genre?
This perfect storm of cultural cringe, patchy visibility and risk-averse publishing means that so many readers and writers miss the fact that what’s happening at home is alive and compelling and fierce and important.
My writing heroes have been international for too long. I’m rethinking my heroes. What nonfiction can do now, here in Australia, is start conversations that champion our own. It’s time to find local heroes—our peers, our mentors, our leaders and emerging writers. It’s time to amplify the volume of those who are working to redefine the genre locally.
It’s time to speak loudly about what we’ve been reading—the Australian affliction of tall poppy syndrome is real, but communities exist to lift one another up. The conversation needs to be loud enough that when our young nonfiction writers think of great experimental and creative nonfiction, they think of Australian work and of people that they can recognise at events, approach for mentorship, and speak with meaningfully.
I am committing to talk loudly about the experimental, the uncomfortable, the underrepresented and the challenging Australian nonfiction that I’m reading. Because these conversations start with readers. And they get books from smaller presses into more hands and on more course reading lists. These conversations educate our publishers and our prizes. They help writers conceive of new ways forward.
The conversation starts with readers, so read loudly.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. Her writing has appeared in The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Cordite, The Wheeler Centre and others. Her work has been shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, the Lifted Brow and non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Writing Prize and the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards.
What follows is a short (hugely selective, utterly incomplete) list of Australian nonfiction work that has gotten me excited recently, which might help if you’re interested in learning more about the current state of Australian nonfiction. It’s comprised of books, websites, projects and articles which feature those conventions and trends that are being exhibited all over the world, as well as those that seem to be more localised. I’d like to acknowledge that this is skewed hugely toward Sydney and Melbourne.
Hit me up on Twitter (@samvanzweden) to help me learn who I should be reading from elsewhere on this great wide continent.
The comments below this article are open, too. Let’s share.
- Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry
- Quinn Eades—literally everything, but especially his books Rallying and All the Beginnings, and his essay series ‘I can’t stop crying’.
- Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright
- Rabbit nonfiction poetry journal
- Tracker by Alexis Wright
- Eyes too Dry by Alice Chipkin and Jessica Tavassoli
- Things That Helped by Jessica Friedmann
- Marionette by Jessica Wilkinson
- Chart Collective
- The Griffith Review’s ‘Interactive essays‘
- The Lifted Brow (print and online)
- Sophie Cunningham’s Tree of the Day