Review of The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred, by Lyn McCredden.

Abstract

The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred, by Lyn McCredden. Sydney University Press, 2017. Sydney Studies in Australian Literature, edited by Robert Dixon.

Creative writers and artists have important things to say to us not only as individuals but as a society. These writers and artists themselves are not best placed to explicate and discuss what these things are. There is a real need for knowledgeable, sophisticated, popularising literary criticism. A discipline wholly disconnected from the public discourses of the society it is part of and that helps to sustain it, is a short-sighted and vulnerable one.

With Lyn McCredden Tim Winton has found his critical mate. It is hard to think of someone more capable of sympathetically explicating his literary and intellectual project. McCredden’s The Fiction of Tim Winton is a sensitive, engaged, learned and very careful, though still accessible, argument for the value of this project. It can be expected to remain the major work on Winton for many years and to stand as the starting point for discussions of what he has set out to achieve and of how successful he has been in these ambitions.

Of course any critic will have her particular interests and philosophical emphases, as McCredden is well aware and acknowledges, but her interests and emphases seem particularly apposite for a work of this kind on this author: ‘It is the role of the critic to seek engagement with readers around what she or he sees as the core critical questions – and even the paradoxes – that arise from the literary work’ (16–17). As she sets out arrestingly in her introduction: ‘[U]ndergirding all Winton’s writing is an awareness of the fragility of men and women and children, of families and individuals, and of the earth; and a need to create, and to offer, narratives of redemption, earthed and sacred’ (17). Winton’s fiction, she contends, is ‘a moral and ethical theology . . . a vision of the depth of human need and degradation, together with glimpses of grace and refreshment, even resurrection . . . [I]t offers a vision of these two aspects of humanness as twinned’ (4).

With these thought-provoking general assessments before the reader, McCredden moves to explore central elements of Winton’s work and its reception. (Winton as a person makes an appearance only when appropriate to the discussion of his writing.)

The opening chapter examines Winton’s use of language, noting that ‘A preoccupation with words – written, spoken, storytelling, vernacular, lyrical, humorous, abject, ideological – is central to many of Tim Winton’s characters’ (19). More than this, ‘In many different ways across his career Winton is teasing out . . . the double effect of words, as both fractured and plenitudinous’ (20); meaning, I take it, that McCredden sees Winton as very much a scriptible writer, in the famous terms of Barthes, and as a writer who uses language to reinforce this double aspect of human existence – earthed and sacred – that she identifies at the core of his artistic vision.

In a chapter on ‘masculine and feminine in the fiction of Winton’, which draws primarily, in a philosophical sense, on Judith Butler, McCredden again emphasises the open and explorative nature of Winton’s literary portraiture, suggesting that charges of patriarchal or misogynistic politics emerging in Breath and The Riders, for instance, are reliant on ‘a simplistic, static understanding of identity formation’ (47). ‘If in the early 1990s new formations of gender, in relation to heterosexuality, gay sexuality, marriage, monogamy, parenting, and multiple versions of all these, were being negotiated in often highly volatile debates’, she asks, ‘why is it that some critics seem to require not a representation of such struggles but an already solved version of gender relations’ in The Riders? (39).

A third chapter looks at falling, which, McCredden says, ‘as trope and as narrative pivot, snakes through Tim Winton’s oeuvre . . . [M]any Winton characters fall from their former or longed-for status: from childhood into adulthood, from security into grievous loss, from a state of happiness or innocence to one experienced as guilt or alienation’ (50). She argues that while ‘[c]ritics have pointed out, and often decried, the plethora of broken and abused women in Winton’s fiction, mostly victims of male violence . . . the male characters are arguably just as misshapen’ (58), and there is ultimately a strong redemptive dimension to Winton’s vision of his fellow humans. Eyrie ‘is a counter measure to the moral dystopia of greed and self-congratulation embodied in Fremantle. It is on the side of renewal, emanating even, or especially, from the humbled state of fallenness’ (59). Similarly, ‘“Turning”, as a metaphor and as the title of the story and [Winton’s 2005 short story] collection, is significant. In Christian beliefs, conversion involves repentance . . . a changing of the mind, a healing, being forgiven’.

‘Winton’s fictions’ have a ‘democratic, redemptive vision, but reach further, towards a sacred source of such redemption’ (67), McCredden contends in the chapter that follows:

In That Eye, the Sky, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath, Winton’s poetics of redemption involve a reaching out in literary language for an understanding of the sacred forces of meaning-making hovering within and beyond the human . . . In these novels, Tim Winton explores what might variously be termed the sublime, the other than human, the sacred, seeking a language with which to encounter the sacred forces, to plumb with increasing intensity the limits of human life, in both imaginative and religious terms. (80)

White’s role as a precursor here demands acknowledgement and McCredden, following Winton himself, duly offers this.

For all the influence and success of White and Winton, however, McCredden suggests that Winton has been unfairly criticised because he is religious: ‘Many of the criticisms levelled against Winton [variously targetting his essentialism, misogyny, nostalgia, opportunism, and pre-eminently his status as a narrow, white-settler writer] continue to stand in for critical disapproval or distaste of his religious stance’ (74). ‘Such an argument needs further substantiation’ (74), she says but, curiously, this is not provided. Instead she defends Winton’s focus on the ‘national’ and ‘traditional’ against the ‘modernity and global cosmopolitanism’ of such as her series editor Robert Dixon, points to a ‘puzzling gap . . . between many academic critics and creative writers around the category of the sacred, with critics lagging behind poets and novelists in their awareness or acknowledgement of religious or sacred sources of the creative imagination’ (74), and observes ‘a growing international scholarly engagement with the field of literature and the sacred, with many international scholars invoking and examining “post-secularism” or “re-enchantment” in scholarship’ (75).

Chapter five discusses Winton’s interest in and portrayal of socio-economic class relations. She suggests that Winton ‘powerfully conducts’ a ‘dialectic’ of factual and imaginative dimensions of class experience, encouraging readers to ‘constantly, imaginatively’, draw back from ‘mere nostalgia’ and ‘reassess’ what ‘working-class values and traits’ are. While this is certainly a defensible reading, McCredden seems on less solid ground in seeking to undermine notions of working-class cultural difference (contending that Winton’s Monthly essay on class in Australia is ‘also about “authentic” identity, and particularly Winton’s felt identity, as working class’ (82), though he does not use this word in his essay or discuss this issue), to stress that Marxism is a ‘faith’, and to politely dismiss the notion of class altogether, through reference to American stratificationist sociologist Floya Anthias (‘such terms as “class” . . . must be seen within fluxive contexts in which “a range of processes” intersect in the formation of individuals and collectivities’) (89). Given that Raewyn Connell demolished stratificationist conceptions of class in 1977, it is a little disappointing to see these forming the basis of discussions here.

In the following chapter, McCredden ‘examines . . . how the categories of popular and literary can be deployed usefully in relation to (Winton’s) oeuvre, and the tension between the “sunnier”, iconic, often humorous strain in Winton’s writing, and a more negative undertow which informs many of his works’ (99). She demonstrates that Winton’s works can be read as both popular and literary fiction, and that critics would be well advised not to obsess about such categorising. Nonetheless, some further discussion of what is at stake in the drawing of such distinctions would have made the chapter still more satisfying.

A penultimate chapter asks ‘What can we make of Winton’s double approach – lyrical and unsettled – to becoming and belonging in (small towns)?’ (108). McCredden argues illuminatingly that ‘Tim Winton is the poet of non-belonging who also dreams, and finds imaginative form for, the possibility of belonging, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, for the working class and class travellers’ (109). Dirt Music, for example, ‘writes from white-settler, European perspectives, honouring the differences between peoples, and moving forward in the process of white belonging’ (116); while even Cloudstreet, which has been criticised, I think reasonably, for its portrayal of Aboriginal characters as absent but seemingly happy and welcoming, ‘is at its core preoccupied with transience and the constant necessity to reimagine what has been lost, or never known for white-settler Australians’ (109).

In her final chapter McCredden asks if narrative can be separated from its reception (124). She notes that the value of writing, like education, cannot be reduced to economic or statistical measures, but that, looking at Winton’s sales figures, ‘it is evident that Winton’s popularity is home-grown, and . . . his narratives seem to be an acquired taste for British readers’ (130). This is of course noteworthy in the context of her location of Winton as a novelist of and for his local and national audiences, though a thoroughgoing integration of these quantitative and qualitative measures is not attempted. Instead, McCredden spell outs, very perceptively, skilfully, and usefully for other scholars, Winton’s narrative techniques and core preoccupations (132–133). She points to the need to consider historical and biographical context in interpreting the meaning and politics of literary works and continues her previous chapter’s articulation of Winton’s sophisticated and affecting portrayals of white-Australians’ separation from, but yearning for, deep connectedness to their land.

An afterword formulates in characteristically appealing prose: ‘the most intriguing revelation about the fiction of Tim Winton, realised by this critic in the writing of this volume, is that every representation of desire to belong, to find or defend home, expressed by Winton’s narrators, characters and plots, contends with a deep undertow of unbelonging’; and ‘This is possibly the necessary inheritance of white Australia, and of working-class Australia’ (144).

Why should we read Tim Winton? There is no final answer, but McCredden has given us the best articulation so far of the value of his work. Her central interpretations are as strongly persuasive as they are eloquently expressed. Though the laws of physics have kept me from listing these, her work is replete with insightful analyses of Winton’s iconic literary episodes and characters (finally I have a convincing interpretation of what the riders, who gave their name to his 1994 novel, actually signify). McCredden, along with her series editor and publisher, deserve our congratulations and gratitude.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Tim Winton.

Cite as: Hollier, Nathan. ‘Review of The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred, by Lyn McCredden..’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.f3d20c8986.