Nothing, it seems, is too small to have its own history. As academic disciplines such as the history of ideas have grown and prospered, popular non-fiction has followed suit, offering the history of a word, a concept, a technology. This has proven to be a highly effective method of opening up the processes of culture for closer inspection, and for revealing the contingent or motivated roots of what we now take for granted. It has become an appealing and often lively way to write cultural histories.
A sympathetic reader might feel that Tim Winton, winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, is a victim of one of the unkindest tricks Fate can play on a writer, with the publication of his first novel, An Open Swimmer, at the age of twenty-one. A first novel from a writer of this age is typically seen as, a ‘young man’s book’, full of the gaucheries and immaturities of the precocious, and even if a success, it is an albatross around his neck for the rest of his career. The best one can hope for is a moderate success, substantial enough to start a career, but not either brilliant enough or bad enough to determine its direction from then on. Fortunately, Tim Winton’s first novel does not neatly fit this stereotype.