Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Archival Salvage: History's Reef and the Wreck of the Historical Novel

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Archival Salvage: History's Reef and the Wreck of the Historical Novel

Article excerpt

Richard Flanagan has periodically expressed anxiety that there is a 'collective loss of nerve' amongst novelists regarding the bold use of narrative techniques that gainfully reframe archival information:

The deployment of more playful forms, the use of fable or allegory or historical elements, is seen to be a creative failure, a retreat. The liberating possibilities, the political edges of story are denied. You sense a collective loss of nerve, a fear of using the full arsenal of fictional techniques to confront fully our experience. (Qtd in Cunningham 2003)

Such a statement presages disaster if it is true. For it suggests that novelists may be censoring themselves from fully experiencing the metaphorical fevers of creative process - that engagement with the archive of techniques and genres that permits them to make and re-make the social and political archive as story. Flanagan, however, may also be alluding to the mixed reception of his formally carnivalesque Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001).

While lack of scope prevents a survey of recent narrative experiment found across novels dealing with Australian pasts, it is useful to reflect that many novelists are still feeling the quietening effects of recent high-profile debates from the mid-noughties where historians Inga Clendinnen, John Hirst and Mark McKenna sought to hang prominent novelists out to dry for making 'smash and grab' raids upon Australian history. This essay reconsiders postcolonial novelistic activity within the archives, offering a riposte to the troubling reception of novelistic research activity by the aforementioned group of white Australian historians.

In the Australian cultural setting, debates about the ethics of portraying Indigenous subjects and subject matter have dominated postcolonial discussions of identity since the 1970s. These debates were almost superseded by circular debates about 'true' Australian history and who has the right to tell it across 2004-08. This was disappointing in a context of the morally and formally imaginative speculations of historians such as Tom Griffiths (2006), Fiona Paisley (2004), Stephen Kinnane (2000) and Greg Dening (2004). But as this local debate became more heated, more public, the oddest spectacle of all was the lambasting of historical novelists.

Notable historians such as Mark McKenna (2005), John Hirst and Inga Clendinnen vociferously condemned dramatic accounts of the past as anachronistic, unethical and, most curious of all in relation to the fictioneer's job description, untrue. In the afternoon of these debates I think it timely to revisit the 'history wars' stoush, in order to argue that these historians overlooked the suasion of broader political battles to determine and culturally enshrine particular narratives of Australian pasts; I argue that they also eschewed the linguistic turn of postmodernism and the contributions made therein by prominent historical scholars in their own field such as Hayden White (1978, 1984, 1986, 1987) and Dominic LaCapra (1983).

Disproving the historians' assertions may pave the way to (re)affirm how novelists as diverse as Kate Grenville and Kim Scott have engaged with colonial archival materials, deploying particular narrative techniques that enable them to generate compelling postcolonial dramatisations of colonial pasts.

I write, therefore, in defence of historical novels dealing with 'Australian' themes, championing not only the 'logic of the novel' but also the idea of the novelist as a kind of resilient historiographic fool within the archive.

The Undisciplined Disciplinary Fevers of the Historians

With the elegance of hindsight it can be seen that between 2004 and 2008, several prominent historians did themselves and their discipline more of a conceptual and critical disservice than those novelists they set out to castigate for their supposedly irreverent archival raids and subsequent fabrication of that which Mark McKenna called 'sloppy comfort history' (9), and that which Inga Clendinnen has named as 'failures of applied empathy' ('The History Question' 20). …

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