Worlds apart: Winton’s visions, sacred and profane
Tim Winton: Critical Essays Edited by Lyn McCredden and Nathanael O’Reilly UWA Publishing, 342pp, $34.99 EDITORS Lyn McCredden and Nathanael O’Reilly begin Tim Winton: Critical Essays with a forthright and timely defence of literary criticism. Its purpose, they argue, is ‘‘to contribute to cultural debates, to reflect on both the individual work and on the state of the culture in which the literary work participates’’. They go on to propose that there is particular value in applying critical scrutiny to the fiction of Tim Winton because it is ‘‘literary and popular, and therefore a remarkable barometer of Australian culture’’.
Based on these criteria, this book is a significant volume, though I am not convinced the barometer metaphor is entirely apt. In fact, the
September 6-7, 2014 collective achievement of these essays is to suggest something like the opposite proposition. There can be little doubt that Winton’s popularity says something about the kind of nation we imagine ourselves to be, but as with any artist of consequence it is his singularity that commands our attention, and one of the effects of bringing together a range of critical views is to draw out his obsessions and idiosyncrasies.
It depends on how one chooses to define ‘‘Australian culture’’, of course, but Winton is arguably more interesting for the ways in which he is out of step or at odds with the society he depicts than for his ability to capture the zeitgeist. He has always been a determinedly parochial writer, his fiction rarely venturing beyond the southwestern corner of the Australian continent and, at his best, he exemplifies the virtues of such a concentrated focus. His fiction is notable for the humane sympathy it extends to its damaged characters, its willingness to dignify lives that otherwise may be deemed marginal or inconsequential, as well as its dark view of contemporary society, which is deplored for its clamour, rapacity and destructiveness.
Tim Winton: Critical Essays — which is, rather surprisingly, the first such collection to have appeared in more than two decades (Richard Rossiter and Lyn Jacobs’s Reading Tim Winton was published in 1993) — includes contributions from Australian and overseas scholars. They roam widely across Winton’s substantial oeuvre, interpreting his fiction from a variety of interesting perspectives. These range from considerations of some of its intimate themes to essays that reflect on its historical, social and political implications.
Michael Griffith reads the ghost story element in Cloudstreet as the thread connecting the novel’s domestic drama to the historical fact of Aboriginal dispossession; Sissy Helff moves beyond a nationalistic framework to examine what she calls the ‘‘transcultural’’ aspects of Winton’s work; while Nicholas Birns interprets Breath as a novel that resists the utilitarian ideology of neoliberalism.
The volume also includes some astute formal analysis, notably Bill Ashcroft’s discussion of the significance of water as a recurring symbol in Winton’s fiction and (the book’s highlight) Fiona Morrison’s forensic examination of the way Cloudstreet uses the vernacular and subtle manipulations of point of view to great expressive effect.
The standard of the individual essays is generally high, though somewhat variable. Some contributors have prose styles that may charitably be described as inelegant. As a whole, however, the volume succeeds in drawing out the multifaceted quality of Winton’s fiction and highlights the complexity of some of the contentious issues it raises.
Several essays, for example —