Last year I was invited by Westerly to write their annual fiction review. New Australian books would be delivered to me, absolutely pristine, still smelling of the printing press, and I could read and review those I wanted to and leave the rest. For this honour and pleasure I would actually get PAID. Sounds good so far, yes?
But now for the confession… I don’t read Australian fiction. I mean, of course, I have read some Australian novels. I’ve even liked some of them. But for a long time I haven’t sought it out, and even when it’s been recommended to me, I’ve been dubious.
Why didn’t I read Australian fiction?
I’ve asked myself this question many times. And it’s hard to put my finger on it. But of the books that resonated with me most deeply in the last decade or so, only a tiny fraction were by Australian writers. The majority were by contemporary North American writers including Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
I frequently complained that Australian fiction, especially as represented by literary prizes, was obsessively fixated with post-colonial issues. But it was not only in terms of themes that I found Australian fiction wanting. In language and voice and style and structure, in fact, in almost every way I could think of, fiction coming from the USA seemed fresher, and more relatable.
But I felt guilty for my preference for North American writing. And writing the Westerly review essay seemed like the perfect opportunity to assuage my guilt. And, as it turned out…
I was wrong about Australian fiction
Yes, there were lots of books that left me cold. But there were also many I liked, and some I loved. Though I dreaded reading another book about first contact between European settlers and Indigenous Australians, the book which made the greatest impression on me this year was Peter Docker’s The Waterboys, closely followed by Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. As I inch towards completing my first speculative fiction novel, I was fascinated by Meg Mundell’s vision of the near future in Black Glass. And the exquisite prose in Stephen Daisley’s Traitor almost hurt to read.
So though I certainly won’t be abandoning my favourite writers from elsewhere in the globe, I’ll definitely be much more open to reading Australian fiction from now on.
What about you? Do you read mostly Australian writing, or do you prefer international writers, and if so, why?