ACL 1001
Reading Contemporary Fiction
Semester 1 2012

Lecture 4
Grunge Writing: Before and After

by Ian Syson


The term Grunge literature, as I'm using it in this lecture, refers to a group of Australian writings that were published between the early and mid 90s.

This period starts with Andrew McGahan's Praise and ends around the time Christos Tsiolkas's Loaded was eventually removed from the shelves for the first time -- but before it was put back on the shelves in the wake of the movie, Head-On.

Some of the writers include:

  • Clare Mendes
  • Edward Berridge
  • Neil Boyack
  • Justine Ettler The River Ophelia
  • Leonie Stephens

It began in 1992 with a quirky book about half-hearted ugly people who did drugs and had a lot of sex. It finished in late 1996 after the publication of a frenetic book about a handsome Greek-Australian homosexual who did drugs and had a lot of sex. In between there were a dozen books and a number of stories and poems published which were largely about people who did drugs and had a lot of sex.

It was a kind of writing that was big on detail, realist in mode (though some might say naturalist), and in which the narrative kept moralism and plot to a minimum:


Neil Boyack, 'Fat'

In 1996 I wrote an article in overland 'Smells Like Market Spirit', where I suggested that

grunge's time was almost over; it was a spent force; it had gone about as far as the marketeers could push it.

A number of reviews and articles (which made arguments similar to mine) were starting to develop an increasingly cynical tone about the whole grunge process.

This is a nice irony given the nature of a lot of the so-called grunge writing:

It was either about cynical characters or written by cynical middle class authors like Edward Berridge or Justine Ettler, who seemed more interested in what they could get out of it in terms of fame and money, than in creating an important new political/artistic movement.

Since 1996 we have seen few if any Australian novels marketed implicitly or explicitly as grunge writing. However, the term post-Grunge is one that has come to prominence.

In the late 90s there were a bunch of anthologies and novels that seemed to have been inspired by Grunge but came very much after its high point .

  • Pub Fiction, edited by Leonie Stephens.
  • Blur: Stories by Young Australian Writers, edited by James Bradley
  • Out West, edited by John Dale.
  • Melissa Lucashenko's two novels.

So grunge realism as marketing category has been very much a thing of the past for at least a decade.

But does this mean that people have stopped writing ‘grunge'?

It's clear, for example, that Clare Mendes has moved away from ‘grunge'. Berridge works in advertising. A number of the grunge writers have given up writing altogether.

Though I'm not sure they are representative. Patricia Cornelius's My Sister Jill (2003) is just as emotionally and physically tough as those books produced in the early 90s.

McGahan's work has gained a softer focus and has matured somewhat but he still deals with tough issues.

And Christos Tsiolkas has of course kept up his confronting style:

  • Who's Afraid of the Working Class
  • Jesus Man , his novel published in 1999. In it one of the main characters commits suicide by cutting off his own penis.
  • Dead Caucasians
  • Dead Europe
  • The Slap

The two most successful grunge writers have developed into significant contemporary Australian writers.

So far I have been using the term grunge a little loosely:

If the body of writing has any shared characteristics, they are

  • rawness,
  • vulgarity
  • explicit
  • spare realism
  • in your face

Grunge was a literature of anger and protest that came from younger writers alienated by mainstream publishing tendencies. What Berridge saw as the effete writings of the boring middle class elites.

But there was another side to grunge:

Grunge was also a label generated by critics and publishing companies to publicise and give a certain kind of credibility to an emerging trend in Australian writing. Paradoxically, a form of writing captured by mainstream publishing.

Within Grunge then, there were always at least two impulses, sometimes within the same book: radical and mainstream, even conservative.

The long history of Grunge

As I suggest in my article, there is a long history of Grunge. It just goes by other names at different times and places in history.

  • Naturalism
  • social realism
  • kitchen sink drama and the angry young men in Britain
  • American realists like Henry Miller and Raymond Carver
  • dirty realism
  • neo realism

Kirsty Leishman in 'Australian Grunge Literature and the Conflict Between Literary Generations' disagrees with my position'. She argues that

While [his] list of the qualities of characters inhabiting a history of Australian literature is irrefutable, what can be disputed is the assertion that the tenor of the relationship the protagonists have with the environment and society is the same as that depicted in grunge. (98)

For Leishman, Grunge was a significant new writing that mediated a whole new set of historically specific issues.

She may well be right but the question is if Grunge stopped being written then where did these issues go?

The New Writing

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a new phase of Australian writing seemed to begin. Peter Carey, Michael Wilding and their cohort represented a new perhaps even revolutionary phase of writing in Australia at the levels of both.

  • Form
  • content

Writers like Peter Carey, Michael Wilding, Frank Moorhouse, Vicki Viidikas, and Helen Garner, wrote stories and novels which shared a lot of the thematic characteristics of '90s grunge. like:

  • drugs
  • sex
  • alienation
  • ennui – weariness, discontent, boredom
  • generational conflict

Often influenced by new writing from America , they were responding to what they saw as a staid and boring realist tradition which very rarely explored beyond the edge of the ordinary. What Patrick White had referred to as "journalistic dun-coloured realism".

Even in its radical form this realism was narrowly focused on a simplistic kind of nationalist or working class politics to the exclusion of issues like race, gender, sexuality, drugs, Asia .

Important exceptions in this overall realist tradition include

  • Ireland ; Harrower; Patrick White

While the outlined similarities are important, a significant difference between TNW and grunge lies in the mode or styles of writing adopted.

The New writing was also a response on the level of form

Perhaps Helen Garner aside, TNW tended to be more

  • surreal, absurd, postmodern, allusive and elliptical

However, the New Writing was a school of writing that, according to Michael Wilding, quickly lost the sense of radicalism that spawned it. It too easily became a protest literature which was merely protesting about the right to say fuck on the page, leaving behind a long developed sense in Australian writing of its strong relationship with the struggles and lives of ordinary Australians.

The rise of Aboriginal writing aside, very little of historical import happened in Australian writing of the 1980s. In the 1980s it seemed that Australian fiction was largely psychological dramas of the urban middle class. This is not necessarily meant as a negative. But writings about those on the edge seemed not to be important.

During this time

  • Writers like Peter Carey lost their edge. Today Carey tends to write for a non-Australian audience.
  • Radical writers like Michael Wilding went out of favour. Helen Garner became more conservative.
  • What began as a revolt against realism and conservatism ended up producing a writing mainstream seemingly more concerned with not being offensive.

As Mark Davis has pointed out in Gangland , the past 40 years is a period in which the generation which took control of Australian cultural production in the 1970s became conservative and cemented their places in the arts world. People who had to fight to be heard in the first place erected barriers like the ones they had demolished in order to preserve their newly obtained kingdoms.

They sewed up the public sphere for their own ends.

Writers like McGahan, Ettler, Berridge, Tsiolkas, Boyack were indeed shut out of the loop.

It is no surprise then that when they emerged in mainstream publishing that their writings too would represent a form of revolt. Like the New Writers before them, they wanted to talk about sex, drugs, music and alienation.

What I find interesting though is that their revolt usually meant, on the formal level, a return to the realism rejected over twenty years before.

After Grunge/post Grunge

What has come after grunge? What have been its effects and influences?

Kalinda Ashton's novel The Danger Game was conceived in this post-Grunge period.

Ashton, born in 1978, is one of a new group of young Australian writers who have come through the creative writing system flourishing in the universities. As such she has been influenced by the writing of the nineties and is particularly influenced by Christos Tsiolkas -- as are a lot of young writers.

Tsiolkas has led the charge in a number of areas:

  • representing the urban
  • representing the edge
  • migration
  • sexuality
  • politics
  • history

What the Grunge writers have done like so many radical literary movements before them is to lay bare some social and historical truths. A close examination of recent post-Grunge Australian fiction reveals a serious attention to Australian history on the part of a number of younger writers. This, I believe, is one important influence of the grunge movement.

Next week we'll look more closely at Ashton's novel.