After a string of books that didn’t excite me or make me want to press them into the hands of friends—an unfortunate trend for someone whose livelihood depends on being enthusiastic about books—I was delighted to start Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill a few weeks ago. Meanjin subscribers will recognise some of the stories from their first publication in past issues. This is a collection of short stories starring fictional figures in Australian literature—from an alcoholic editor who overzealously intervenes in his wife’s work to a communist organiser who disparages all writing that doesn’t fall under the category ‘socialist realism’. Readers will find both real authors—Geordie Williamson, Peter Carey, Charlotte Wood—and veiled stand-ins—the reviewer Peter Crawley and the literary journals Northerly, Overground and Quarter.
For this reader, the book was a perfect remedy, cleansing me of some accumulated weariness. Contemporary Australian literature is, for the most part, not interested in humour. On prize lists, in review pages and in independent bookseller windows, you will rarely find literary books that are funny. It’s almost as if such writing is seen as too fluffy or lacking seriousness. A potential hangover of cultural cringe, perhaps. As if, in order for our work to be taken seriously, it must, in fact, be serious. But to my mind humour can be one of the best means to really critique and engage with the biggest concerns of the time. O’Neill’s satire of these imagined authors’ treatment of Indigenous Australians, women and narrow delineations of masculinity deftly probe some of the underlying prejudices and shortcomings of contemporary Australian letters—and by extension, life. But these interrogations, accompanied as they are by the occasional chortle or smirk, access our thinking in a different way. One of the pleasures and accompanying possibilities of such fiction is the ability to engage and persuade subtly, side-on and without didacticism.
O’Neill is a relative newcomer to Australia—he’s a Glaswegian who switched a narrow green island for this wide brown land as an adult. It’s easy to credit some of his most incisive critiques to the fact that he’s an outsider—albeit a very sympathetic one. It’s also his careful attention to Australian writing as an English academic that offers depth to this work. He’s more widely, and deeply, read in Auslit than I and many of my publishing peers are, so no doubt I’ve missed some of the jokes but as with a Nabokov novel—clearly a favourite author for O’Neill—you can read the book either shallowly for the storylines and fine turns of phrase or more deeply for the puzzles and references and hidden clues.
My only quibble with the book is that O’Neill has made me yearn for books that never existed—a peculiar kind of saudade. There’s the author’s Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings, an imagined history of the short story in Australia, Long Time No See by the founder of the deliciously named Kangoroulipo movement Arthur Ruhtra and Little Viv Grows Hair in Peculiar Places by Vivian Darkbloom (her chapter will be particularly fun for Nabokov fans). The book is also scattered with references to destroyed works that even the ‘author’ himself hasn’t had access to—removing the book even further from the world of Auslit as we know it.
Sure, index humour and insider jokes aren’t to everyone’s taste (though I highly recommend spending some time in this book’s index, the fun nuggets in there made me chuckle) but the humour has more at stake than just making you laugh. Whatever you may have been led to believe by overzealous English teachers or worn-out university lecturers, literary writing can be playful—what fun we can have. And while we’re having fun, we can interrogate underlying prejudices and shortcomings, we can find parallels between the, at times, extreme examples of egotistic muse, interventionist editor or racist writer and the flesh and blood characters who people the world we live in.
To my mind, there’s plenty of room for satire in the cliquey world of Auslit—as has recently been demonstrated by the response to Julie Koh’s clever and playful collection Portable Curiosities. I’m particularly excited to be publishing a novel-in-stories called Rubik in April next year which is also funny, satirical and biting. Here’s hoping that the reception of Koh and O’Neill’s books help encourage other authors, and publishers, to hit our funny bones. To remember that humour and playfulness can, in fact, be seriously gratifying.
Alice Grundy is Associate Publisher at Brio and co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Seizure, an online incubator for Australian writing.