Review of Studies in Classic Australian Fiction, by Michael Wilding

In the absence of any introduction this collection of critical essays leaves its readers to interpret its challenging title. This of course calls up D.H. Lawrence's pioneering collection of essays on American literature which set out to trace, through what became the main or canonical authors, the sources of its newness and vitality. It was part of Lawrence's restless quest to seek out and celebrate representations of those social and psychic forces representing the new and the vital as against the repressive and stagnant to which they were opposed. Wilding calls up this book not in emulation of its quality or approach but rather out of sympathy with this informing spirit. He wants to challenge readers' conventional conceptions of Australian literature and its criticism in two main ways. First, he wants to question modem or contemporary canons or mainstreams by his choice of subjects: Clarke, Lawson, Lane, Jack Lindsay, Furphy, Stead and White. These represent a mixture of those accepted as classic with authors who have been passed over if dutifully treated in historical surveys. Secondly, the mainstream authors, along with the others are treated in unconventional ways and not for the strengths hitherto attributed to them. This is accomplished by stressing the importance of the political, usually some form of socialistic thought, though Wilding is not doctrinaire about this, as a hitherto neglected part of these authors' strengths, and furthermore by demonstrating that instead of being aesthetic flaws or drawbacks these ideas and their embodiment are a main source of the works' power. For Wilding is not one to privilege craft and form over content or message but rather to see the two as reinforcing one another. In fact, an important and unfashionable part of Wilding's argument throughout is that institutionalised criticism brought with it the repressive and narrowing view that the discussion of ideas is improper in considering the novel as an art form. While Wilding mounts strong arguments for his case and cause he never forces them upon the reader but rather offers them as part of alternative readings which will enrich and enlarge our appreciation of fiction. Indeed he writes throughout in a generous spirit, preferring to celebrate and praise rather than to condemn. It is engaging, for instance, to see a critic expressing enthusiasm rather than reservation, as in expressions like, 'it is amazing that .. .', or 'it is so harrowing that this reader shies away ...' (and this of Clarke's 'Pretty Dick'!).

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Published 1 October 1997 in Volume 18 No. 2. Subjects: Australian fiction.

Cite as: Hergenhan, Laurie. ‘Review of Studies in Classic Australian Fiction, by Michael Wilding.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997.