Reviewed: New Australian Fiction 2022, Kill Your Darlings (ed. Suzy Garcia)
A consistent theme in recent discussions of literary trends—at least on Twitter—is the massive surge in popularity of shorter forms of literary writing. Considering the recent highlights among Australian collections such as Mirandi Riwoe’s The Burnished Sun, Ben Walter’s What Fear Was, or the This All Come Back Now anthology (ed. Mykaela Saunders)—and this is excluding stunning collections from international authors such as Norman Erickson Pasaribu, whose collection Happy Stories, Mostly was longlisted for the International Booker prize—it’s clear that the short story is having a moment. We can easily point to some factors: there’s generally very little money to be made, so the pressures of making a living give many writers only the time and focus to write short form. Or maybe it’s the shortening of our attention spans caused by the infinite scroll of bite-sized social media? Whatever the reason, it’s an exciting time to be a reader of short stories. This much is obvious to any reader who is even tangentially plugged into the Australian literary scene, with fiction pages flourishing in literary magazines such as Meanjin, Overland, Griffith, Island, and others, which are continually publishing absolute bangers in print and online. The works being published are experientially adventurous, socially conscious, fun and exciting. Against this background, Kill Your Darlings’s annual anthology, New Australian Writing, is both a natural expression of the scene’s general vibe and a gnomon by which we can measure the quality of Australian short story writing. The fourteen stories therein are a sampling of the thoughtful inventiveness exemplified by our writers, unafraid of shock and disgust, and daring to experiment with form and style.
This 2022 edition is the first collection in the series to be edited by Suzy Garcia, who takes over from Rebecca Starford (who was editor from 2019, the series’ inaugural year, to 2021). In her introduction, Garcia suggests that the common theme in this collection is a sense of uncertainty about the future. To this I’d add that there’s a strong current of struggle against one’s past and against one’s social and cultural environments. Examples of this abound in the anthology. In Bobuq Sayed’s ‘The Spirit Realm’, an Arab family is haunted by their adoption of a more Western lifestyle, seemingly punished for abandoning tradition. In Chloe Wilson’s ‘Lifestyle Creep’, the protagonist gets lost in a cycle of endless consumerism as a reaction to their place in society—his aspiration to luxury leads him into a hole of despair from which he can only exist by accepting the emptiness of his pursuit. Indeed, it’s always uncertain what the future will bring, but stories such as these illustrate that we do have agency in our lives, even if we are carried away by the many social and political currents that can pull us in various directions.
Topically, the stories are varied and explore various ways of responding to life. Some other favourites in this anthology include Jack Vening’s ‘Goodbye to the Body’, which follows two estranged cousins as they reconnect at a dinner to which one of them brings a corpse as his date; Whitney Chen’s ‘Audition’ sees the protagonist go through a series of increasingly mind-numbing challenges to audition for a reality TV show; Nina Newcombe’s ‘The Land of Smiles’ grapples with the question of how to engage with our traditions while growing up relatively detached from them, as a young woman plans her wedding and hopes to include at least some elements of her Thai heritage in the ceremony. Another highlight of this collection is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s ‘Heat’: a gripping story about life in public housing written in the form of a series of poems. It’s riveting to see fiction extend the boundaries of the form in a significant collection like this, and I take this to be a sign that we’re reaching a point where readers are primed for more experimental writing to reach wider audiences.
That said, the number of terrific stories in this collection doesn’t permit me a full account of them all. This is a collection that rewards reading and re-reading, and which shows that despite all the practical limitations of the Australian literary environment, great fiction can be and is being written here.