Racism, the Realist Writers' Movement and the Katharine Susannah Prichard Award

By Hollier, Nathan | Australian Literary Studies, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Racism, the Realist Writers' Movement and the Katharine Susannah Prichard Award


Hollier, Nathan, Australian Literary Studies


IN their works on literary politics in postwar Australia, Susan McKernan (later Lever) and John McLaren mention the comparatively little known role played by the Realist Writers' movement and its journal Realist Writer (later The Realist).(1) Ian Syson has offered an interpretation more in sympathy with the methods and achievements of this group: `in terms of struggle for space in the cultural sphere for over a quarter of this century, the Realist Writers' movement stands as a courageous example of militant cultural practice' (Syson 334). He contends that the significance of the Realists lies primarily in the challenge that their collective organisation posed to individualist notions of literary production and value. Moreover, this collective structure distinguishes the literary achievements of its members from those of other working-class writers commonly absorbed into the bourgeois literary sphere. The Groups sought to provide a space for the intellectual and creative offerings of ordinary working people. At the same time they hoped to shape this space in such a way as to preserve the alternative nature of its cultural discourse, the collective, class identity of its writers. Further research, using the extensive collection of letters of Ray Verrills (who published under the pseudonym of Ray Williams and was the journal's editor from 1962 until its end in 1970),(2) has helped to build a more comprehensive picture of the journal and the culture around it. One interesting story to emerge from the letters sheds light on Australian racism and the limitations of the movement's guiding philosophy of aesthetic and political realism.

In 1963 the National Council of Realist Writers' Groups established the Katharine Susannah Prichard Award for short stories, to mark that writer's eightieth birthday. The prize of ten pounds was awarded to `The Boy from Coomb's Creek', published in The Realist 17, Summer 1964.(3) Written by Mrs E.M. Smith, under the pseudonym of E.J. Grant, the story contains many of the qualities valued by these groups. Kylie Tennant, one of the judges (the other two being Les Greenfield and Norman Talbot), writes in the same issue: `In an award such as the Katharine Susannah Prichard Award, which carries with it the eclat of a famous writer, one looks first for the qualities which belong, or should belong, to a school of writing in which social realism is a paramount consideration. I was looking for honesty, accurate observation, and a knowledge of working-class conditions, rather than literary techniques' (Tennant 19). Of course, `honesty', `accurate observation' and a knowledge of working-class conditions are mediated through literary fiction techniques. `The Boy from Coomb's Creek' is an ordinary or `realistic' narrative told by an easily identifiable persona, Charlie Warner, the owner of a cattle station. The rural setting is in keeping with the magazine's political interest in folk culture, its belief or assertion that the true, egalitarian Australian spirit continued unbroken in the bush.(4) Its message is, on a surface level at least, relatively simple and politically progressive (obscurity and conservatism being The Realist's central critical objections).

Warner is in the southern Queensland town of Coomb's Creek, looking for some horses and perhaps a horseman, to assist in droving five hundred head of cattle to his own property in New South Wales. At a sale he is impressed by the riding ability of Max Bell, a `youngster ... about nineteen' (4). Despite some reservations about this young man's social reticence and surly demeanour, Warner offers Bell the job. The story then consists of a series of personal encounters in which the older man is puzzled by Bell's behaviour. Bell is shocked when asked to have lunch with him, surprised when told to bring his gear into a half-way house, disbelieving when invited to have a cup of tea with Warner's friends at a cattle station, and finally, all but moved to tears when asked to have dinner and spend the evening with them. …

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