The Best Australian Essays 2008 opens with an elegant, extended reflection by Christos Tsiolkas entitled Into a Liquid Ether. Tsiolkas writes of the night, which in childhood was "a dangerous and forbidding place". Then came the pleasures of reading, old movies playing on the telly, libidinal experiments with sex and drugs.
Tsiolkas was taught by someone brave to be at home in the night, a world which belonged to shift workers, taxi drivers and others that the day preferred to forget, ignore or fear. His is a sketch of a greatly diminished contemporary public culture that screams out to us "to not drink, to not smoke, to dob in our friends," to fear.
The editor of the collection, David Marr, has placed this piece as a lead essay to a section about "The World", rather than to the Australia-focused section "Our Place". Tsiolkas is explicitly writing about the kind of nation bequeathed to us by John Howard and the moral politics of Kevin Rudd. But Marr’s placement suggests it’s about much more than this: it’s about the relationship between a private self and the state, and the idea of "community", which somehow sits messily between those two poles.
State, self, society: it’s a configuration that has been transformed over recent decades across the globe by neo-liberal economics, neo-conservative ideologies, and terrorism. Tsiolkas’ new novel The Slap is set in the wake of this period of transformation, and it lays bare some of the tensions it has engendered. New freedoms are celebrated by the state, for instance in the economic realm — although we may be living through the end of this era. The state also insists that individuals modify their behaviour: rein in excesses (but not the urge to shop, no not that!). In the process we see the state itself advance new definitions of the "normal" and the "good life", both of them relative terms which evade consensus.
It is communities, Tsiolkas suggests in The Slap, that crack under pressure as old class-based friendships and shared experiences are changed by the financial boom, disillusionment with politics, and of course the stresses of family life.
Books like The Best Australian Essays are not intended to be read cover to cover. Yet Tsiolkas’ contribution is a thoughtful, promising choice with which to begin: it is an essay that challenges, probes, unsettles and splits open. I’m sorry to say it’s the pick of the bunch, and the rest of the volume leaves its promise unfulfilled.
Marr describes the process of putting together this collection. He "read and read," wondering "what there was to find out there and in what strange corners?" In late 2007 I was involved in working behind the scenes on the edited collection Best Australian Political Writing 2008. I relate to the image of Black Inc.’s scavengers gathering material ceaselessly, optimistic about the state of Australian publishing, writing and thinking. By optimism, here I simply mean an awareness that creativity and thoughtfulness do occur in unexpected places, beyond the usual sources. It’s worth looking low to the ground, for self-published or independently published work, as well as online. On Marr’s account, he searched high and low with his team.
Now what’s curious is this: after so thoroughly scouring the cultural landscape, Best Essays (published by Black Inc.) includes 13 pieces re-published from The Monthly (also published by Black Inc.), nine pieces from major Australian newspapers and newspaper magazines, and only a handful of pieces from "strange corners", including a lovely, sensitive piece written by Vin Maskell for The Big Issue, and one unremarkable previously unpublished essay.
There is nothing in here from Griffith REVIEW, which continues to publish excellent essays or Meanjin, greatly energised under the new editorship of Sophie Cunningham. Many other Australian journals keep on keeping on, but these two spring to mind because they both contain material that I think should have been included. I’ll nominate just two pieces that offer elements that are missing from Best Essays: In "Once Were Westies", published in the Winter edition of Griffith REVIEW, Gabrielle Gwyther talks to the residents of a master-planned estate, aka McMansion owners. Gwyther’s is an intelligent, thought-provoking engagement with a pressing social issue. And throughout 2008 Meanjin has featured a collaborative work by writer Kate Fielding and comic artist Mandy Ord. Theirs is a creative, sophisticated and beautiful piece that uses the graphic medium to explore questions of history and belonging. Best Essays doesn’t have enough material with brains, heart and incisors, nor does it promote experiments with the essay form.
It seems to me there are two possible ways of understanding Marr’s mix. The first is the conspiratorial explanation — what a racket on the part of Black Inc.! But the second seems far more plausible, and is at least worth discussing. That is that this collection is as myopic as the particular sliver of Australian cultural life from which it is drawn. This is hardly an original point. Marcus Westbury’s popular TV show Not Quite Art took this as its starting point, questioning who gets to define what and where cultural life takes place.
There is no centre of the nation, there is no "we", there is only a particular group of people bound together in the mistaken assumption that what they do with their time and what they read and what they write represent just that. I think Marr and his merry band of helpers genuinely believe that The Monthly represents the high watermark of essay publishing in this country. Marr says in his introduction that he never settled on a definition for the essay. Reading his collection, I was forced to conclude he’s leading us on. If he hadn’t claimed that the essay could be many things then my criticisms might be redundant. Arguably, my complaints of Best Essays are of characteristics inherent to the essay form.
Needless to say, Best Essays does carry some very good, enjoyable writing, republished from The Monthly — the collection includes great work by Don Watson, Nicholas Rothwell and Marr himself. But like all publications The Monthly has an identity, a culture, a particular feel. It takes itself very seriously. It can be pompous. It exhibits a clear preference for classical and high modern forms of culture, and likes publishing writers that have had classical or humanist educations. And so it is with Best Essays. With so many contributions from a single source, the tone for this publication is set by The Monthly.
Further, there are some strange choices. Robert Dessaix reviews Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. My reading of this review is that he finds Garner’s book, indeed her whole oeuvre, narcissistic. And yet he rounds off his highly critical discussion with a ringing endorsement of The Spare Room. It’s pretty confusing, and let’s face it, not all that important.
Then there’s Robert Manne’s essay about the Stolen Generations and the apology. This is a missed opportunity to include something about one of the most significant events of 2008. Manne’s scholarly contributions to the history of the assimilationist era have been valuable, as has his writing about the New Right’s culture of denial. But there is very little that’s new in this long essay which rehearses Manne’s own role in the "culture wars" over Aboriginal history. I’m mindful of Tony Birch’s recent criticisms of non-Aboriginal historians’ ongoing arguments with each other about Aboriginal people’s pain.
In case you’re fast coming to the conclusion that I am one cranky bitch let me add that I loved Rachel Robertson’s essay about her autistic son’s fascination with numbers, as well as the contributions by journalist Ed O’Loughlin and Brisbane writer Benjamin Law.
Still, you’ be hard-pressed to remember the internet even exists while reading this book. (Although Annabel Crabb does decide to bake an apple pie and ends up cooking her Apple iBook in a moderate oven for 30 minutes. It still worked when she got it out, keys fused together and grill marks on the bottom.) The only online content included is Guy Rundle’s coverage of the American election for Crikey. This material is a real highlight. Rundle is bloody funny and his observations of American social relations are brilliant. Unfortunately for both Rundle and the reader Best Essays obviously went to print before the actual election itself, and overall the piece doesn’t satisfy.
I’ll conclude with some comments about a nice piece by Chris Hammer about hitchhiking. Like Tsiolkas, Hammer is concerned with a culture of fear and distrust of strangers. Here we come full circle. Hammer, it strikes me, is nostalgic about the way things were, suggesting that his generation knew how to be young, brave and interesting. (Marr’s own work, I should note, most recently on the Henson case, is not at all nostalgic.) While Tsiolkas is picking up on similar themes to Hammer he resists this rendering, insisting instead that all of society is implicated in the current order: he writes about how it came to be, and how to remake the way things are.
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