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The American Way and the contemporary Australian Novel

by Susan Lever,
Honorary Associate,
The University of Sydney

This article is based on a paper delivered at the Reading Across the Pacific conference, at
the University of Sydney, January 2010.

Trying to wrangle the last 50 years of novel-writing into my chapter for the Cambridge
History of Australian Literature edited by Peter Pierce (2009), I was struck by how
unamenable Australian postwar writing has been to any kind of structure of national
influence. How much easier it would be for the historian if writers learnt from each other, or
handed on the baton of national creativity from one generation to the next. There was Patrick
White doing his best to help me by returning to Australia right at the beginning of my set
period (1950 to present) to publish his extraordinary novels. And he did influence other
novelists, at least in the first decades after his returnThea Astley, Randolph Stow, Tom
Keneally all developed some aspect of Whites renewal of the Australian novel: his satire, his
interest in the spiritual, his revision of the possibilities of fictional history. But by the middle
of the 1970s it was hard to find a novelist who admitted to reading White, let alone being
influenced by him. In a 1977 issue of Australian Literary Studies (8.2), full of comments by
the new generation of Australian writers, only Murray Bail gave White any due as the leader
of experiment for his compatriots.

The 1970s generation of writers was full of masculine bluster and determination to kill
fathers. A. D. Hope and James McAuley provided the poets with suitably conservative
literary patriarchs. White presented the novelists with a more ambiguous antecedent; in 1977
he turned 65, old enough to be dismissed as belonging to the past generation. But he had
reinvigorated the Australian novel and made it important to our literary culture. He was also
disobliging towards the academic literary establishment embodied for him in Hope and
Leonie Kramer. Down the track, David Maloufs novels might be seen to continue something
of Whites approach to the novel, but David Ireland, the leading novelist of the generation
immediately following White, appeared to come from nowhere. Helen Daniel suggested that
he was influenced by the South American fabulists but Ireland himself resisted
acknowledging influence. He belongs to an autodidactic tradition that can be traced back
through Xavier Herbert to Joseph Furphy and forward to David Foster.

This kind of Australian novelist seems to come self-created, submissive to no masters. Its as
if Australian writers feel the need to declare their independence from literary influence
alongside their resistance to any imperial power. Yet we know they had to read someone
the desire to write must come from readingjust not, it seems, fellow Australians. They
havent bothered much with the canonical British texts taught in the education system, either.
It has been the contemporary American writers who have provided Australians with
sufficiently anti-authoritarian, individualist, even romantic models without binding them to
imperialist or establishment canons. John Tranter long ago explained the effect of the arrival

of Donald Allens and Donald Halls American anthologies on Australian poets. The
novelists will admit to reading Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, Ken
Kesey, Norman Mailer, Donald Barthelme, Philip Roth, even Charles Bukowski, where they
wont let the name Patrick White cross their lips.

With Australias censorship of imports, the work of these Americans hardly reached
Australian readers until the late 1960s. Ten years later, the influence was clear. The writers
represented in Brian Kiernans 1977 story collection, The Most Beautiful Lies (the title
pinched from another American, Mark Twain)Morris Lurie, Murray Bail, Frank
Moorhouse, Michael Wilding, Peter Careyand others, such as Gerald Murnane and David
Foster, all owe some debt to these Americans. Moorhouses stories The Jack Kerouac
Wakethe true story (Tales of Mystery and Romance 1977) and The American Poets
Visit (The Americans, Baby 1972) openly acknowledge the Beats as the inspiration for the
comparatively feeble attempts of Australian writers (and would be Beats) to rebel against the
capitalist status quo. Careys story American Dreams (The Fat Man in History 1974)
deplores the way that America fills the fantasy life of its Australian country town and his
novel, Bliss (1981), turns Australia into a version of America, referencing American writers
like Fitzgerald in its attack on capitalist corruption. By now, after decades resident there,
Careys work has become infused with America, and his novels, including the recent Parrot
and Olivier in America (2009), work hard to encompass both America and Australia in an
international culture.

There is a curious double bind, particularly in early Carey and Moorhouse stories, in the
resentment of the Americanisation of Australia while adopting the styles and attitudes of
American writers. Moorhouses stories in The Americans, Baby express a fascination with
Americans while presenting them as the corrupters of Australians; they are both the capitalist
enemy and the envied creative innovators. In these stories Australian attempts to create
something of the Beat rebellion continually fall short, moving towards comedy and self-

In his first published work, the novella North South West (1973), David Fosters narrator
rants about the insidious American influence on Australia:

Personally, I think I know more about New York and Los Angeles than I do about
Melbourne. I know more about Nixon than I do about Gorton. ... I enjoyed
Portnoys Complaint! I hated Catch 22, but I didnt dare admit it. Id rather kill
an anonymous Yank than a Viet Cong, those obdurate little bastards. But Im
never going to catch up to the USA. (North South West, 1973, 10)

Like the stories of Carey and Moorhouse, Fosters protest is performed in an American style.
Later he claimed William Burroughs, the Old Bull Lee of Kerouacs On the Road, as his
guide. Foster has called Burroughs one of the greatest literary satirists of this century:

If satire must be written from a moral eminence, Juvenal occupies the high
ground, Burroughs the low. To my mind, they represent satirical extremes, and

define, or limit, the scope of the form. I have heard junkies blaming Burroughs for
their addiction. He made it sound important. (Studs and Nogs, Satire 88-89)

Fosters latest novel, Sons of the Rumour (2009), with its astonishing learning may seem a
long way from Burroughs, but Foster has learnt his own kind of virtuosity over the years
with a mix of obscenity and learning, comedy and seriousness, masculine hubris and self-
loathing. From Fosters perspective, Burroughs is the writer who carries the innovations of
James Joyce to a new level and another generation of readers and writers.

Burroughs (1914-1997) was an almost exact contemporary of White (1912-1989)both of

them sons of wealthy families, well-educated, and travelling in gay sub-cultures in Europe
and America before the Second World War. But when we consider the access Australian
readers and writers have had to American work since the 1970s, it becomes obvious which
writer matters most to the contemporary Australian novel. The more iconoclastic and vital
writing from Americaeven by a junky who shot and killed his wifemakes Whites
innovation look genteel.

Burroughs and other American writers (Barthelme, John Barth) seem to have served as a
conduit for European ideas for writers like Foster and Ireland who found their way towards
seemingly poststructuralist fictional techniques without any apparent knowledge of French
philosophy. Irelands early The Chantic Bird (1968) and The Unknown Industrial Prisoner
(1972) show signs of reading Kerouac, while his more fabulist novels appear closer to
Burroughs. While later Australian experimenters like Brian Castro or Marion Campbell
clearly have learnt directly from French philosophy, Foster, Moorhouse, Murnane, Carey or
Bail have not studied literary theory in any systematic way. Apart from a spontaneous feeling
for the zeitgeist, the probabilities are that theyve learnt from the Americans whose cult status
is clear not only in Australia but throughout the English-speaking and European world.

By now, the Beats are embedded in Australian as well as American popular culture, in music
and film as much as literature. They are evident in the blue jeans, leather jackets and
sunglasses that have remained the attire of cool cats for fifty years. The bebop form of jazz is
the music they celebrate, though rock bands have laid claim to their heritageBurroughs
appears on the cover of the Beatles Sergeant Peppers album and his Wikipedia entry lists
rock bands like Steely Dan who take their names from his metaphors (though the Australian
band, Augie March suggests theyre reading Saul Bellow out there, too). The writing of the
Beats seems to circulate among each new generation of readers, and their influence seems
undiminished among younger Australian writers including Tim Winton, Andrew McGahan,
and Steve Toltz. Wintons Dirt Music (2001) plays not only with the travelling adventures of
On the Road, but makes American music the passion of its central figure, Luther Fox (even
his name sounds American). Toltzs rambling novel A Fraction of the Whole (2008) seems to
come from the same kind of sourceshis webpage features a photo of a pile of books with
Charles Bukowski and the Black Sparrow Press prominent.

Bukowskis fiction was unlikely to find its way onto the curriculum of Australian universities
during the 1980s and 1990s. His work has most currency outside the universities, particularly

among young men. In the 1970s, when his fiction and poetry was being published by Black
Sparrow Press, Pat Woolley managed to get the Australian distribution rights for his work for
Wild & Woolley, and she assures me that Bukowski was a steady seller (Wild & Woolley
also distributed for Lawrence Ferlinghettis City Lights bookshop and so can claim
responsibility for the Beats reaching Australian readers). Bukowski is a late successor of the
Beats, without any of their sense of a political or national purpose. His writing is
distinguished by a masculine voice, disaffected by the demands of routine work and the need
to be respectable. His protagonists (lightly disguised versions of himself) drink heavily and
treat women badly. They find work mindless, and frequently sabotage it or leave. You can
see the appeal to any young man without ambition or sense of vocation. Yet for all the misery
and even misogyny of his masculine pose, there is an edge of self-mockery and vulnerability
through it.

McGahan openly cites Bukowski as an influence and his first novel, Praise (1992), adopts
something of Bukowskis down and dirty, yet ironically humorous, attitude. His 1988 (1994),
though, works as a parodic Australianising of Kerouacs On the Road and Desolation Angels
(1966). Both McGahan novels provide a satiric commentary on how much more hopeless and
ludicrous is the condition of the shiftless man in Australia. 1988 sends up the tradition of the
American road novel as its two aspiring artists set off to discover themselves and Australia,
driving a Kingswood from Brisbane to Darwin. It comments wryly on Australian nationalism
in the Bicentennial year and our lack of an interesting history: the manufactured nature of
tourist spots, the failures to settle the North or to create a sustained relationship with
Aboriginal people. For direct parody, compare Sal Paradises exultant reflections on San
Francisco in On the Road:

There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall
of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born.
Another hour and it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the
romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb
slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was
Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and
Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the eleven teeming hills...

And before me was the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent... (On
the Road, 76-77)

With Gordon and Waynes arrival in Darwin:

We went down to the beach. There was no surf. Nor was there anyone swimming.
Warning signs mentioned marine stingers, sharks, and crocodiles...We werent there
to look at the beach. It was the ocean we wanted.

We looked out across it, north and west. There were huge white rain clouds piled on
the horizon. Id forgotten exactly which body of water it was. Perhaps the Timor Sea.
Or the Arafura. Either way we werent looking east and it wasnt the Pacific, and that
was the important thing. Wed travelled somewhere. There was a feel about Darwin.

In the air. It was a weight, a heat and humidity that was nothing like Brisbane.
Coming down from Asia the breath of the monsoon.

On the other hand it wasnt southern Chile, or the remotest Russian Tiaga, or the
upper reaches of the Zaire River. Australia was only so big, and we were still in it.
(McGahan, 1988, 70-71)

Just as McGahans and Wintons heroes travel the outback to find nothing, Australia doesnt
inspire the kind of romantic vision of Kerouac in San Francisco.

The reading set for literature students in the academy has nothing to do with this cycle of
influence, as generation after generation of young Australians read Kerouac, Burroughs and
Bukowski. If they enrol in a creative writing class, they are also likely to read Raymond
Carveranother American inheritor of the tradition. These writers tell readers that they can
be writers, too, because they make writing look easy. The important thing is to set down the
immediacy of experience, not dress it up as art. Kerouac famously put down the first draft of
On the Road in three weeks; McGahan, were told, wrote Praise in two months in order to
meet the deadline for the Vogel award. Spontaneous prose offers every reader the tools for
art. Given the cycle of reading and writing, Australia might expect a dirty realist phase of
fiction, based on new responses to these Americans, in every generation.

Its also evident that the more erudite Philip Roth has had a lasting influence on Australian
contemporary writing. Unlike Kerouac, Burroughs or Bukowski, hes a well-behaved New
York intellectual educated in the academic literary canon and concerned about the technical
perfection of his art. In 1970 Portnoys Complaint (1969) negotiated Australian censorship
through the courts, ensuring that most Australian readers over 60 have read it. It is the novel
that transformed Roths career from that of a clever and earnest practitioner in the tradition of
Henry James and Bellow into a brilliant satirist and chronicler of his own social and sexual
world. His later work is imbued with a sense of European history and trauma, so that his
version of America (consider, for example, The Plot Against America, 2004) presents the
New World as continuing the obsessions of the Old. His great trilogy beginning with
American Pastoral (1997) makes his intensely sexual and individualist work into a
consideration of the meaning of AmericaRoths determination to examine aspects of
personal experience, especially the intimacies of sexual experience, has become an epic about
the experience of being American in the late twentieth century. Mention Roths work to
Australians, though, and youre likely to find Portnoys Complaint the only one theyve read.

This novel was enough to open up the possibilities of individual sexual experience as a
source for fictional meditations on changing Australian society in the 1970s. With an even
more firmly policed censorship than the USA, Australian governments resisted the corruption
they saw in the American sex obsession. Though there were a few Australian novels that
transgressed the code, the main threat came from outside, mostly from America. Morris
Luries novels and stories of the Jewish Australian community in Melbourne make a direct
social connection to Roths accounts of his world in New York and Chicago. But Roths
sexual frankness helped Australian fiction writers break their silence about sex. The efforts of

the Tabloid Story writers (especially Wilding and Moorhouse) in the 1970s to break down
censorious attitudes to literature align them directly with Roths boldness with Portnoy.
Frank Moorhouses short fiction, in particular, took up Roths project on behalf of
Australians, with a similar comedy and wit. Over a series of discontinuous narratives
Moorhouse chronicled the sexual activities and political enthusiasms of people like himself,
shifting from the Australian countryside to the city and aware that the world was much larger
than Australia could contain. His direct and ironic style in these books surely has picked up
on Roths lucid approach to the novel. On the other hand, David Irelands A Woman of the
Future (1979) may owe something to Roths wackier The Breast (1972) (which, in turn, owes
a lot to Kafka). Since the 1980s, Australian women novelists have become as prominent as
men and, though some of them admit to reading the Americans adopting elements of
spontaneous prose, they are as likely to see their work as criture fminine derived from
the French feminists as instigated by Kerouac or Roth. Could Mary Fallon have written
Working Hot (1988) without reading Roth? Perhaps. On the other hand, Helen Garner may
take some comfort from Roths mature railing against ideological simplicities and his
insistence on the complexity of individual experience. The lines are not always direct, as
ideas are exchanged across national boundaries.

Though Roth often gets a bad press from feminist readers, his great masturbator demonstrated
that the private experience of sex continues behind the facade of polite middle class social
behaviour. Showing writers that they could speak about it meant that women, too, could at
last write about their intimate experiences in fiction. His work was an important part of the
shift in the 1970s towards exploring the nature of sexualities in fiction, and he insisted that
sexuality was not separate from the social, historical, intellectual and political world. You
may be affronted by the extremes of Portnoys obsession but youre unlikely to miss the witty
satire of middle class hypocrisy. Over his career, all Roths obsession with individual
experience turns out to be a cumulative contemporary history of what it means to be an

The American influence on contemporary Australian fiction is but one strand of literary
history that is unlikely to feature in national histories with their commitment to promote
native writers. To some extent, Australian writers have travelled in parallel with American
writers, giving different national inflections to the same shifts in cultural and literary
sensibilities. Writers like Robert Coover, John Barth or Thomas Pynchon bring a different
kind of energy to metafictional experiment than Bail or Carey or Castro so that notions of
direct influence can only be speculative. We can be pretty sure, though, that any influence
only goes one way.

Another essay might trace the influence of South American fabulists or European
postmodernists or the postcolonial novel in the wake of Salman Rushdies Midnights
Children (1981). Histories of fiction must be selective and partial as they try to make
meaningful narratives out of a body of individual works in that most individual of art forms,
the modern novel. We know that all narratives (fictions, literary histories) select, interpret and
thereby falsify the record. Yet the more panoramic view of literary history can open areas for
interesting speculation, especially about the broad directions of American and Australian

contemporary writing. Reading these Americans immediately shows up the relative gentility
of Australian writing where the most rebellious fiction tends to be a dirty realist depiction
of an underworld rather than a steady satiric view of the middle class.

The confidence of American writers in the continued significance of middle class family life
as a subject (John Cheever, John Updike, Anne Tyler, Don De Lillo, Bret Easton Ellis,
Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Mooreadd your own favourites), and the centrality of the
experience of white middle class men in contemporary American fiction throws into relief
our relative lack of interest in suburban experience or the white men who still dominate our
society. The great contemporary American writers have maintained a satiric and comic
perspective on the middle class, and this has somehow allowed them to continue to speculate
freely about what it means to be an American in the contemporary world.

By contrast, our sensitivity to our colonial origins, and our distaste for vulgar nationalism has
pushed writers towards the historical novel whenever they want to talk about what it means to
be Australian. There difficult issues like relations with Aboriginal people can be negotiated
with greater moral clarity than they could be in the present. Perhaps Americans are relatively
free of postcolonial sensitivity (they dont class their own literature as postcolonial) while
Australian writers have taken the lesson of white Australias implication in the destruction
and continued suffering of our Indigenous people. So, McGahan travels from 1988 to The
White Earth (2004), or Kate Grenville from Dreamhouse (1987) to The Secret River (2005),
while Carey, Malouf and many others have participated in fictional revisions of our national
history. Our novels about contemporary suburban life, by comparison, often lack sympathy or
humour (let me just mention Christos Tsiolkass The Slap of 2007), let alone the wit of Roth,
De Lillo or Franzen.

American novelists give every appearance of complete confidence that urban lives in a
contemporary and changing world are worthy of intense fictional attention and mockery. By
and large, they also seem convinced that a direct address of the reader, with limited
postmodern pyrotechnics, can engage an audience. Australians are not so sure about their
worthiness as subjects, nor the validity of the straightforward fictional addressjust as they
keep finding emptiness when they head out for a romantic road adventure in the outback.