I found it difficult to start writing this. Normally it’s easy enough to talk about what’s happening in Australia. There’s always lots of talk about. It was a bit harder during the bushfires, because I didn’t want to talk about the trauma of it (and I still don’t) but reporting on what was happening was important.
Now, the US is in trouble. Most of the readers of this blog are in the US, I suspect, and I worry about you all. That’s why I didn’t write about anything serious last time and that’s why I’ll do the same this. We are still in trouble here, for almost the whole world is in trouble, but trouble is relative and right now our cousins are the relatives who we need to talk about. Not here. Still, for me to talk about our government is like whingeing about a blocked sink when our neighbour’s house is burning down. I hope your housefire is put out soon and please, stay well and stay safe.
Let me talk about smaller things today. Not tiny, but smaller than terror and crisis.
Hannah Gadsby has a new show on Netflix. She spends just over an hour pulling comedy to pieces from a different direction to her earlier Netflix comedy routine, Nanette.
I look at her work and look at mine and suspect that part of what she does, she does as an Australian. Gadsby is more public about reflexivity and using structure to understand and create, but she and I do a lot of taking things apart bit by bit and showing how they work. This is what I did with The Year of the Fruit Cake and with Langue[dot]doc 1305 in particular. Not all Australians do this critical art, but I do, and Gadsby does. We’ve never met.
At least, I don’t think we have.
We’ve come sort-of-close. I checked Wikipedia. We shared a campus while I kept myself in food and drink in order to write novels, about two decades ago. I taught Continuing Education while she did her Art History degree. I guess it’s possible she’s attended a lecture or class of mine on the Middle Ages, but it’s unlikely. I don’t focus on Art. I am the wrong sort of historian. She worked in bookshop in the city I lived when my first novel came out. If we haven’t met, it’s been a narrow shave.
We didn’t get the approach to writing from the same place. Mine came from historiography and ethnohistory and that’s something she’s not studied (according to the websites I just checked). Except, the world expert on ethnohistory was at the ANU at the time she did her undergraduate degree.
Why is this so important to me? There’s a very Australian reason.
In this current impossible year, a lot of old cultural traits are recurring in many countries. Not just hate in America. Hate in America is impossible to deal with and easy to talk about. In Australia, one of the traits that has revisited us is what we call ‘cultural cringe’. We hate tall poppies and always have, unless they are sportsmen. Sportswomen sometimes get through. Other people… if you are too brilliant or talented your career will be intentionally destabilised for your own good, more often than not. This was, in the sixties and seventies, one of the key reasons for a mass exodus of Australians to the UK and, two decades later, to the USA. The cultural cringe never left and if one wanted to walk on the water of success and be more than averagely talented, it was easier to do it elsewhere.
This led to a critical tendency in those of us who remained, I think. When talented women in particular could see the problem but couldn’t do anything about it and, frankly, liked Australia enough to want to stay… we started thinking about things. Gadsby is one of the few to think in public, internationally. She pulls the stuff of comedy apart and puts it back together as reflexive and self-aware … stuff of comedy. Without stepping a centimetre way from the subject of comedy, she changes the way audiences experience it.
What I’d like to know is how many of us there are and what we do, when pulled together and analysed. I’d know if I were under analysis, so if there is a study being done, it might exclude me. I’m mentioned in studies of historians who write fiction, not of culture critics, though. Not many literary critics are even aware I write along the same lines as Gadsby (or, in fact, that I exist), looking at the form and nature of novels the way she examines the form and nature of comedy. We both make our thoughts part of the narrative. Cut out those thoughts and the story is much sadder and smaller.
Leaving me out of it, this is quite a big issue.
Australia’s dealing with the series of 2019-2020 crises patchily. Sometimes we do well and sometimes we do appallingly and mostly we just muddle through. Our cultural narratives aren’t sufficient to get us out of the mess, but they’re enough to scramble around and deal with a lot of things.
The fact that those of us who pull stories apart, find out what makes them work, then put them back together in a way that explains clearly to audiences how they work – the fact that we’re numerous enough to begin seeing each other… what does this mean?
I suspect it means that Australia is on the precipice of cultural change. We’re the canaries, signifying that change.
I’m a bit shy and can’t see myself going up to Gadsby and saying, “Look, I’m doing this too. Do you know anyone else?” This means that I’m going to sit back and watch. I’m part of it, and I’m going to pay attention to who is aware what stories they tell and who pulls them apart and explains them to audiences and changes the audience in so doing.
I’m not convinced that most of our politicians are ready for this cultural shift a few of us have begun to bring. It’s one that will get through the crises, regardless, for one of the things this self-aware criticism does is explain why this story or that story worked ten years ago but isn’t going to work now. This means we may find new stories. Tools for discovery are, in their own way, tools for recovery.
It’s the oddest and strangest kind of hope.
Update: I’m glad I chose not to talk about the bad things today. I’m very sorry I used the ‘neighbour’s house’ explanation. I’m so much more worried for you all after seeing the news just now. Take care, please.