By Chris Wallace
We’re Australians. We love a brawl. Rugby league, English literature, history – don’t mind the turf, just love the biff. But you’ve got to be sporting and understand the limits.
Take the Manly Sea Eagles game against Melbourne Storm at “Brookie” (that’s Brookvale Oval for the uninitiated) last weekend. Manly agent provocateur Glenn Stewart stirred up a mass brawl, then treated the crowd to a one-on-one duke up with the Storm’s Adam Blair as they headed off to the sin bin. I hate actual violence so the flailing punches which mostly fell short of their mark provided theatre without any serious damage. That’s entertainment!
The image in the same game of Storm full-back Billy Slater cradling the head of Manly’s David “Wolfman” Williams after Williams slammed headfirst into a tackle was a wonderful contrast. Slater guessed correctly that Williams may have suffered a spinal injury. Players all around were motionless ensuring Williams remained still in Slater’s arms. It was sporting. It was compassionate. It was beautiful. We in the arts and social sciences, especially those engaged in criticism, could take a leaf.
The publication of Kate Grenville’s novel Sarah Thornhill has triggered the lengthy profiles and serious reviews that a new work from one of Australia’s major writers deserves. A journalist friend once said if you want to be a great journalist, work for a great newspaper. Equally, if you want to be a great novelist write about great things. Grenville does, undertaking the hard research, reflection and work of imagining in fiction how traumatic parts of our human story have played out – in her most recent books, specifically on Australian settler society and its interaction with the land’s traditional owners at various stages of the bloodily unfolding frontier.
Is there a more difficult and sensitive topic? It’s hard to imagine one. In Sarah Thornhill she adds a further degree of difficulty to the task, bringing to life a fictional white female protagonist in rural Australia – an underdocumented kind of Australian to put it mildly. No-one can accuse Grenville of sitting around the National Library Petherick Room slacking. It’s a case of the hard job well done. Grenville approaches the historical research task meticulously, with the utmost seriousness. She deserves kudos, not castigation.
The profiles and reviews of Sarah Thornhill almost without exception dredge up an old bit of biff between Grenville and historians Inga Clendinnen and Mark McKenna dating from publication of Grenville’s The Secret River. Clendinnen and McKenna took umbrage at a playful throwaway (but unfortunately ambiguous) remark by an unwitting Grenville, interpreted by them as her claiming superiority for fiction over history. Grenville and McKenna have, I understand, since buried the hatchet. Not so Clendinnen. Historian Tom Griffiths subsequently played a brilliant Billy Slater-type role, arguing correctly that “history and fiction are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and imagination”. So true. And that might have been that except for two things: the press clippings file and the latest edition of History Australia.
The brawl will most likely keep coming up in profiles of Grenville. What’s in the clippings file never leaves the clippings file, especially now it’s a digital clippings file. In any case the fight is now part of her story and it would be wrong to take an eraser to it. It’s terribly boring, however, to keep having it reverb through reviews when, frankly, it’s not all that relevant. I plead with literary critics now: give it a rest. Enough with the literature v history biff already. Read Grenville’s books. Review them as novels.
Conversely, over on the history side of the non-existent fence – after all, we’re all writers – things have suddenly hotted up. There’s never been a definitive refutation of Clendinnen’s argument – until now. The lead article in the latest edition of History Australia, the journal of the Australian Historical Association, fixes that: “Historical novels challenging the national story” by Susan Sheridan, Adjunct Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide.
It’s a subtle and inspired exploration of history and fiction, of issues of historical accuracy, and of the demarcation dispute that Clendinnen’s attack on Grenville constitutes. Sheridan wonders whether adverse developments in the Australian book market crowding “novelists and narrative historians onto the one, competitive, track” are to blame. She doesn’t spare Clendinnen along the way, charging her with making “a strangely anachronistic distinction between aesthetics and morality”. Sheridan argues powerfull that imagining the motivations of distant peoples doesn’t necessarily involve retrofitting them with contemporary values “as Clendinnen rather uncharitably claimed is the practice of historical novelists”. Well said. We are all comrades in letters after all.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 3 September, 2011