ACL 2009
Australian Literature
Semester 2 2012

Lecture 2
Contemporary Australian Literature and the Cultural Cringe

Contemporary Australian Literature and the Cultural Cringe
As we discussed in RCF, contemporary fiction in Australia begins around 1972 and over the past 40 years hasn't really lost many of its central characteristics:

  • end of history,
  • end of class,
  • rise of affluence yet the curious and apparently simultaneous rise of alienation and depression,
  • drug use and sexual liberation and their attendant psychological outcomes -- both positive and negative.

We attributed this change in Australia to the demise of a staid, old-fashioned tradition of realism focused on the ‘ordinary' and its revolutionary replacement by a postmodern, extraordinary form of writing (as in the writings of Peter Carey, Michael Wilding and company).
Allied to a general freeing-up of morality and culture.

One of the factors in this change in the late 1960s and 1970s was the ‘cultural cringe' and the way Australians responded to its terms

Coined by AA Phillips in 1958 the term ‘cultural cringe' related to a prevalent attitude in Australia that insisted we needed constantly to reference Europe (especially Britain ) as a superior culture to ours.

  • We were embarrassed about our local attempts to replicate culture as it existed elsewhere.
  • We craved acceptance from the metropolitan critics of Europe
  • We were delighted with mild praise.
  • When we needed expertise we looked overseas.

Phillips also identified the ‘cringe inverted'. The idea that our culture is superior in all aspects: “in the attitude of the Blatant Blatherskite, the God's-Own-Country-and-I'm-a-better-man-than-you-are Australian Bore”.

The problem was, if we tried too hard it would only look even more cringeworthy via the ‘cringe indirect'.

The sixties then was a period in which Australian culture engaged with the terms set out by Phillips, in which we tried to extricate ourselves from the cringe – or prove that we weren’t cringing in the first place.

Need to heed Christina Stead’s objection to the idea of the cringe.

A stream of writers starts to travel to Europe and elsewhere and write alienated but powerful stories of their disconnection – of the failure of Australia to provide a fertile ground for their art. Writers like George Johnston, Shirley Hazzard and others move away to get some perspective on Australia . In other fields figures like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barrie Humphries and Rolf Harris find England a better haven for their intellectual projects.
Some of those who stayed tended to overvalue ‘indigenous' Australian cultural forms to the exclusion of the outside world.

  • Elevation of the bush myth – by both the right and the left
  • The promotion of cultural nationalism as an important political strategy  
  • The preference of the local without any reference to aesthetic quality as conceived by what Lawson called the ‘cultured critics'
  • A book like Power Without Glory becomes a rallying point for critics in the 1950s despite its flaws and limits.
  • describe

Later, in the 70s, the attitude seemed to be that we should confront the poms with a vulgar and yobboistic attitude. These are from the Adventures of Barry McKenzie.


Irony that Barry Humphries, someone who despised suburbia was a driving force behind this push.
None of these responses were adequate. None were forms of writing that settled well. They were writings that wore their obsessions too openly – but are nevertheless interesting because of that.
Phillips makes the point that:

the most important development of the last twenty years in Australian writing has been the progress made in the art of being unselfconsciously ourselves … I believe that progress will quicken when we articulately realise two facts: that the Cringe is a worse enemy to our cultural development than our isolation, and that the opposite of the Cringe is not the Strut, but a relaxed erectness of carriage.

One of the astounding absences in Australian cultural life in the 1960s was Asia. In this unit, Alice Pung aside, we will look at the representation of Asia and Asians to some extent but only marginally. But there is very little scope for us to do so. The enormous landmasses and their many millions of people to our north failed to register culturally – except as figures of threat or danger.

Books like the Slap represent the latest in a long line of serious engagements with Asia as a place that has significance to Australians.

Today have we successfully moved away from that obsession with Europe that led us to adopt the ‘Cultural Cringe'?

Have we adopted what Phillips' "relaxed erectness of carriage”?

  • Does the poetry of John Forbes overcome the cringe?

  • Does Tsiolkas overcome it?

I get the sense that both writers do this, not by inverting the cringe but, in their own way, subverting it. They are comfortable with the fact that Australia exists in a global/international culture and they are quite happy to evaluate things as they find them, unconstrained by the demands of national boundaries and cultural-nationalist politics.

So is an important characteristic of contemporary Australian fiction this comfortable avoidance of the cringe?

How do the writers we look at this week see their position vis-à-vis the rest of the world?

I think what characterises something of the texts this week is their sense of rootlessness.


Tsiolkas asks critics to “read Loaded as an examination of the particular histories of Australian migration and racism”. It has captured a moment in Australian history at which some basic cultural promises are in the process of being broken. Its main character, Ari, lives an alienated life in a society in which the long promise of egalitarianism and a fair go for all has been exposed to be a cover-up for the massively unequal distribution of the country’s wealth. The more recent promises of the fragmentary politics of  identity expressed through, for example, multiculturalist or Gay Liberation rhetoric are also shown to be empty. For Ari:

Ethnicity is a scam, a bullshit, a piece of crock. The fortresses of the rich wogs on the hill are there not to keep the Australezo out, but to refuse entry to the uneducated-long-haired-bleached-blonde-no-money wog. No matter what the roots of the rich wogs, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Arab, whatever, I’d like to get a gun and shoot them all. Bang bang. The East is hell. Designed by Americans. (43)

Nor is there much useful solidarity in the gay community for a working class homosexual like Ari:

Maria tells me I’ll never make a good faggot. You hate Abba and love early Rolling Stones. She shakes her head at me. What kind of queer are you? Crystal giggles in my face. The Rolling Stones, he squeals, how boring.

                   –Early Stones, I correct him. (109)

Tsiolkas’s other novels:

Dead Europe is about roots being destroyed and there being nowhere to find sanctuary – perhaps Australia is seen as the best of a bad bunch because it is at worst anodyne. But it's hardly something to skite about.

The Slap presents a cosmopolitan Australia in which the outside world is neither superior nor inferior. Australia is big enough to have its own angst and dilemmas.

Unpolished Gem
Story told in first person by the daughter in a family who have come to Australia from China via Cambodia. It is a story about people who have come to a bizarre world. To some extent it repeats the wonderment of the very early representations but it is also very different from them.

It is interesting because it constructs Australia as a paradise – but it's only a paradise to those that don't understand it in the way more long-term residents do.
P 19
P 26

 What's telling about the book however is the sense that the paradise will inevitably dissipate as integration occurs.

John Forbes, 'Anzac Day' and 'Europe: A Guide for Ken Searle'
Two of Forbes' list poems that compare us to the rest of the world in different tourist contexts, Read Europe.
Compare this with Barry McKenzie