Introduction : Subtopia, or the Problem of Suburbia

Suburbia has been a neuralgic point in debates about Australian culture and Australian identity since the end of the nineteenth century. Louis Esson's 1911 diatribe against the 'vaunted purity of the suburban home' captured what is still a pervasive anxiety about suburban life. The suburban home, wrote Esson, 'stifles the devil-may-care spirit, the Dionysean, the creative spirit. It denounces Art, enthusiasm, heroic virtue. The Muses are immolated on the altar of respectability' (91). In the period since the end the second world war this anxiety about suburbia has become a staple of Australian cultural and intellectual life. If the anti-suburbanism of modernists like Robin Boyd and Patrick White has been noted often enough, the persistence of an anti-suburban strain in more recent Australian fiction has attracted less criticism and comment. In novels as diverse as Justine Ettler's The River Ophelia and Helen Darville's The Hand that Signed the Paper we find the compulsive need to escape the banality of the suburb - to the sexual excitement of inner-city Sydney in Ettler's novel, to the trauma of 'real' history in Darville's.

What emerges from post-war Australian writing, at least in so far as it is concerned with suburbia, is that anxieties about the suburbs are not just anxieties about the everyday experience of life in Australian cities, its social and political effects and cultural possibilities, they are also anxieties about the 'everyday' itself as an experiential category referring to the mundane cycle of work, consumerism and domesticity in which most of us are, in varying degrees, implicated. In recent years suburbia has become the focus of research in cultural studies. Partly inspired by the work of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre on the processes of everyday life, cultural studies in Australia has grappled with the complex field of practices, values and value judgments that inhabit the everyday in a postcolonial society unsure of its past and future. With this shift in focus away from the narrow forms of high art, the elitism inherent in the anti-suburbanism of figures like Boyd and White has come into sharper focus and now seems anachronistic.

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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: Australian literature and writers, Place & identity, Suburbs.

Cite as: McCann, Andrew. ‘Introduction : Subtopia, or the Problem of Suburbia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1998, doi: 10.20314/als.696aa50401.