Australian Grunge Literature and the Conflict between Literary Generations

By Leishman, Kirsty | Journal of Australian Studies, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Australian Grunge Literature and the Conflict between Literary Generations


Leishman, Kirsty, Journal of Australian Studies


In 1995, a new literary genre was heralded in Australia.(1) It was called `grunge', a problematic and soon to be hotly contested label which nevertheless attempted to describe a rush of literary releases by the publishers of new, young authors. Given the popularity of Andrew McGahan's 1991 Australian/Vogel prize winning novel Praise with a previously unmapped demographic of sub-thirty year old readers, the latest crop of novels was marketed with hopes of similar success with this audience. Cover blurbs engaged language which promised uncompromising narratives that would expose the `raw nerves of youth',(2) and lend an insight that was `disturbing but compellingly, unflinchingly real'.(3) It was further claimed that grunge charted the territory of Australia's inner cities and the disenfranchised young people who lived there; gritty, dirty, real existences, eked out in a world of disintegrating futures where the only relief from ever-present boredom was through a nihilistic pursuit of sex, violence, drugs and alcohol. As the first novels of many of these authors, assertions of realism were compounded by their apparently semi-autobiographical contents.(4)

While Praise was retrospectively nominated as the founding work of this genre, the novels emerging within grunge were attracting critical attention.(5) Although in `Lit-Grit Invades Ozlit' Murray Waldren denied grunge was a new genre, preferring to locate these new publications within a wider tradition of `dirty realism', he did offer a list of works by young Australians that fitted his broader mould. These included Andrew McGahan's Praise, Leonie Stevens' Nature Strip, Fiona McGregor's Suck My Toes, Neil Boyack and Simon Colvey's Black followed by Snakeskin Vanilla, and Ben Winchl's Liadhen. all these works were published before 1995. Waldren also cited a number of books due to be released at the time of his article: Justine Ettler's The River Ophelia, Edward Berridge's The Lives of The Saints, Andrew McGahan's 1988, Christos Tsiolkas's Loaded, Gaby Naher's The Underwharf and Leonie Stevens' Big Man's Barbie.

The authors of these texts were presumably happy that their books were selling, but they were less impressed by the boundaries being drawn in these articles. During appearances at book festivals around the country in 1995 and 1996, writers sitting on grunge panels disputed such categories for a variety of reasons. Andrew McGahan, Fiona McGregor and Christos Tsiolkas reacted to the homogenising effect of conflating such a disparate group of writing. The author of Eat Me, Linda Jaivin, preferred her novel to be described as `comic erotica',(6) and she disavowed any similarity to the `nasty' incidents portrayed in Berridge's stories.(7) Jaivin is most eloquent in her condemnation of critics when she says, `[grunge] does appear to be an excuse for a wank -- by the critics who embrace such terms'.(8) Tsiolkas also comments on his perception of `[t]he dirty realist thing [as] a media creation'.(9) Addressing an audience at the 1996 Brisbane Writers' Festival, Richard King expanded on this point, arguing that grunge was used by commentators as a pejorative term, thereby dismissing the value of writing by young people.

The debate around the production and reception of Australian grunge novels is worth considering in greater detaiL not least because it has succeeded in averting (or at least postponing) any sustained discussion of the novels in question. Karen Brooks notes that `[d]espite the antithetical view these books aroused, they have still received little critical attention'.(10) In Gangland, Mark Davis argues that the resistance to considered critical engagement with grunge texts was orchestrated by `deeper networks of patronage' led by those individuals of the `baby boomer' generation(11) that have `accumulated cultural capital and commercial power'.(12) In an echo of Richard King's argument, Davis describes the `inbuilt biases' of those who run the literary pages of newspapers in terms of a `smug, morally superior' defence of `approved culture' at the expense of alternative and emergent cultural expressions by young people.

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