The Best Australian Stories 2003
Black Inc., $24.95 pb, 460 pp
At Adelaide Writer’s Week in 2002, Drusilla Modjeska spoke about the prevalence in contemporary Australian fiction of historical subjects and distant eras; she exhorted Australian writers to consider instead the importance of addressing our own times. Much of this speech subsequently found its way into the essay ‘The Present in Fiction’, published in Modjeska’s Timepieces later the same year.
Then, last March, David Marr took up this baton and ran with it in his address to the Australian Society of Authors, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia’. Contemporary Australian writers, he argued, are in the same predicament as Patrick White was in the 1950s,
As the old philistine culture of Australian politics reasserts itself. And the same way out is available to those of us who want to take it – to explore this new old Australia through writing [and] start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching ... So few Australian novels – now I take my life in my hands – address in worldly, adult ways the country and the times in which we live.
Two anthologies of fiction published late in 2003 might have been expected to provide, between them, some kind of overview of the directions that Australian fiction has been taking at the turn of the century, and to indicate some response, or resistance, to the claims of Modjeska and Marr. But it’s hard to see any pattern in this respect, across the fifty-one writers these two books represent between them. (The list of writers whose work appears in both books is heterogeneous and surprisingly short: Carmel Bird, Frank Moorhouse, Janette Turner Hospital, and the Peters Goldsworthy and Corris.) If there’s little direct engagement on a literal level with the current conditions and prevailing values of life in Australia, there is also perhaps a discernible lessening of interest in historical topics, except insofar as they bear directly on our times.