Words, Sticks and Stones : Keneally, Literature and Social Impact

In the safe enclave of consumerist liberal civil society, we tend to mock communities who take words to heart and rush to the streets to protest their use: it's only a poem, for god's sake; it's just fiction; or in the language of my school playground: 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me'. But at the same time we hotly debate freedom of speech versus legal limits to defaming or vilifying others, and hold to the belief that art matters, that it can make a difference to our lives. The scholar who turned The Satanic Verses into Japanese found that the word, just like the sticks and stones, could indeed hurt you. The hurt of the word, however, can also work to good effect. It can create national and international awareness of injustice, as Solzhenitsyn's fiction exposed Russia's despotic use of the gulags. It can provoke the collective conscience such that positive social reform ensues (a common example is the literature of anti-slavery, notably Uncle Tom's Cabin). Our dilemma is how to save the word from a knee-jerk literalism in which everything is instantly political and artistic subtlety is lost, without giving up on the capacity of language to effect social change.

In Australia, Tom Keneally is one writer who may be said to have had a distinct social impact. He has inspired white Australians to reimagine the nation's convict heritage with Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), has inserted Irish Catholicism into the national cultural landscape in plays, film, fiction and The Great Shame (1998), a history of the Irish diaspora.

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Published 1 November 2013 in Volume 28 No. 4. Subjects: Australian literature and writers, Social change, Tom Keneally.

Cite as: Sharrad, Paul. ‘Words, Sticks and Stones : Keneally, Literature and Social Impact.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 28, no. 4, 2013. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.b885f23549.