Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2019

Literary Activists, Writer-intellectuals and Australian public life (2009), by Brigid Rooney

I wish I had time to finish this book, but it’s due back at the library. (As usual, *shrug* I have borrowed too many books at once).

However, it’s the ideas in the Introduction that interest me most.  Brigid Rooney surveys the literary landscape from the 1940s to the present (i.e. the early 2000s at her time of writing) and so her primary interest is in the activism of Judith Wright, Patrick White, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Les Murray, David Malouf , Helen Garner and Tim Winton.  Of these only the last three are still living: Malouf is in his 80s, and Garner is not far behind; only Winton is younger than I am.  However, I am more interested in the writer-activists that spring to mind from my recent reading: Indigenous writers exposing Australia’s Black history such as Alexis Wright, Marie Munkara, and Anita Heiss; authors tackling the issue of climate change such as Alice Robinson, Jane Rawson and Lucy Treloar; and those such as Meg Mundell and Rohan Wilson inviting readers to think about refugees.  There are others who tackle a wide range of contemporary issues: Rodney Hall, David Ireland, Elliot Perlman, Wayne Macauley, Eleni Hale and John Tesearch, to name but a few.

However, the issues Rooney discusses in the introduction remain valid.  She begins by recounting a 2003 talk by David Marr, in which he noted that in the 1970s political parties anxiously sought the endorsement of the nation’s leading artists. However, speaking in 2003, he said, [and things have only got worse since], artists and writers have become political liabilities, not assets, and politicians are quick to distance themselves from the taint of arts elitism. Marr invoked Patrick White to make his audience mindful of the urgent necessity of sustaining the relevance, value and public authority of an Australian literary culture. 

But who was Marr’s audience? Rooney explains:

— the gathering had been mostly mature in age.  Battle-weary baby boomers had comprised a familiar, earnestly polite crowd.  They, or rather we, were frequenters of writers’ festivals, listeners to ABC Radio National and purveyors of refined cultural goods.  To use one commentator’s phrase, we were an audience of ‘book chatters’.  (p.xi)

While aware that this audience was largely from an inner city demographic and thus vulnerable to charges of elitism, and sympathetic to the changed economic landscape that impacts on young people today, Rooney nails it IMO when she writes:

…for politically engaged youth — and there are some — of what relevance is a literary book culture dear to older generations?  In this age of digital, electronic and visual cultures, books compete and interact with film, television and the internet, all of which offer highly accessible and powerful means of story-telling. (p. xi-xii)

If anything, the prestige of the literary has faded even further since Rooney wrote this book and noted that contemporary Australian writers have been blamed for shying away from political engagement, from the big national issues of the day.  Part of the difficulty is that writers’ public interventions are made in the context of the ongoing struggle for authority and legitimacy within a literary culture that seems too insecure on the one hand, and a political culture too hostile on the other, to host any public intellectuals.  To speak out on any issue risks the prestige of the writer within the field, and the prestige of the field itself.  

I read the chapters about Judith Wright and Patrick White in the 1940s, and the one about Winton and Garner (1995-to the present, i.e. a decade ago).  It is not a criticism of Rooney’s book to say that it is written for an academic audience, but as a general reader I found it heavy-going, and allowed myself to get distracted by other things instead of finishing it before it was due back at the library.

Nevertheless, I remain interested in the concept of the writer-as-activist.  If public intellectuals have vacated the media space for discourse about important issues, how then does an electorate make informed judgements?  We watch what passes for current affairs on what’s left of serious TV and radio, and are no wiser than before. Experts who actually know what they’re talking about have been displaced by vox pops via social media. It’s as if we are now so attentive to inclusivity, that representation matters more than expertise.  Some of the talking heads on TV are blissfully ignorant, you only have to watch Q&A to see people blathering on about topics outside their field of expertise (and I don’t just mean the politicians).

The truth is that I know more about homelessness, for example, from reading recently published books than from the media.  This is a social problem of major importance yet it’s either completely ignored in the media, or covered in such shallow, scanty ways that while the heartstrings may be briefly engaged, the structural reasons behind homelessness remain hidden behind the mournful music, and we don’t hear about any meaningful proposals for change.

For me, it is not that writing about other things is unimportant, it is that the space for writing about the big issues has diminished.  Whatever attention is available for discourse about books is circumscribed by a narrow range of domestic interests.  There are so many narcissistic memoirs featured at writers’ festivals!

However, I’m not so pessimistic that I need to look back at a cohort of writers not read a great deal today. I’d like to see more writers tackle important social issues, but as you can see from the authors I refer to at the beginning of this post, there are indeed contemporary writers engaging with the big picture, and I’m always on the lookout for more.

Update 9/4/20: I came across a very interesting review related to this topic at Inside Story. It’s by Susan Lever, and it’s a review of Novel Politics: Studies in Australian Political Fiction
By John Uhr and Shaun Crowe published by Melbourne University Publishing. (The link goes to the MUP website).

In Novel Politics, political scientists John Uhr and Shaun Crowe argue that literature can reveal much about how political ideas circulate in Australia. In defining political fiction, the subject of an undergraduate course they have taught at the Australian National University, they follow Irving Howe’s distinction between the “political” novel, which confronts readers with the consequences of political ideas, and the “social” novel, which takes “society for granted” — George Eliot’s social philosophy versus Jane Austen’s wry observation, in other words. Their interest is in novelists as public intellectuals rather than as observers and entertainers.

They discuss six novels:

Uhr examines three pre-Federation novels, by Catherine Helen Spence, Rosa Praed and Catherine Martin, while Crowe looks at a novel each by contemporary writers Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas, and two by Kim Scott.

Do check it out…

Author: Brigid Rooney
Title: Literary Activists, Writer-intellectuals and Australian public life,
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2009, 260 pages
ISBN: 9780702236624
Source: Port Phillip Library Service


  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Not easy to keep up here with this area so this looks appealing. Sad that we have lost Clive James. Been catching up on Les Murray as his new collected poems make a further impact.


    • It is, I agree.
      Your mention of Clive James makes me think of Greer: we would call her a literary activist too, I think.
      (Even when she was recently lecturing about Sappho at Melbourne University, she was on form. *SmacksForehead I should have blogged that!)


  2. Richard Flanagan has always stood out for me as a writer activist. He writes well about environmental interests as well as some social ideas.


    • Yes, his recent writing in The Guardian has been very powerful. I wonder what he’s writing at the moment… a new novel can’t be far away…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph (and the whole post). I look out for strong issue-based fiction and find especially Rodney Hall, who you mention, a continuing delight in that respect. I think it’s something that not enough authors tackle, the important social/political issues of the day.


    • I hope this doesn’t sound patronising, but I wonder if some of them don’t pay any attention to the social & political issues of today… maybe they live in a bubble of celebrity and sporting news. Because I don’t see how, if you were a writer, you could bear not to use the power of your pen to address serious issues.
      Take Kirsten Krauth, for example, who wrote that marvellous book just_a_girl, that alerted us to the way young girls can be so vulnerable to the dark web. I was teaching back then, and it was that book that made me take a look at what our Y5&6 students were posting on Facebook. They had no clue about privacy protection, and obviously their parents had no idea about the risks their children were taking. If other teachers read that book (especially secondary teachers) they would also have done what we then did at our school, and developed a curriculum for safety online, an education program for parents, and a code of conduct for parents and students to sign up to. I don’t say we solved the problem, but no one could have said we didn’t try.


      • Nor can I see how you could and would not address current issues. On the other hand, the political/environmental situation is so very bleak that you’d probably not want to delve into that kind of darkness further! I haven’t read Just a Girl, but saw the recent SBS series where what happens to teenage students on social media was fictionalised. Can’t remember the name, but I was hooked by being appalled and grateful that I had no teenage kids anymore!!!


  4. Interesting topic Lisa. The dearth of the public intellectual in Australia and how different in the 60’s,70’s when there was extensive reviews and engagement of serious matters in newspapers,radio and even TV. Seems like another world or am I being nostalgic? The deluge of memoir and autobiography by people whose interest is mostly ‘self-interest’ does not broaden our understanding of ‘serious matters. I have to nominate Germaine Greer as worthy of that title for she much more relevant than the feminists that are currently flooding the airwaves at present. I cannot bear to listen to most of them.


    • I love Germaine Greer, she is my all-time hero:)


  5. Me too. Met her last time she was here in WA and my daughter captured lovely photo of me with her.


    • I was too over-awed to go and speak to her when I attended her lecture about Sappho. Germaine Greer is like royalty to me.


  6. You could argue that the Global Warming Emergency is the principal issue of our times, but really our inaction on climate is just a symptom of the rise of the billionaires and their control of political debate. We have noted over and over in the Australian blogosphere the increasing prevalence of dystopian fiction and that is clearly a pointer to disquiet about the descent of Anglo societies into an Orwellian future. Writers are doing their job!


    • Ah yes, Bill, I hear you, but that might just be the books we’re choosing to read. If you could see the endless press releases I get about misery memoirs and facile domestic dramas, you might not be so confident. Because these books I don’t bother with, are the ones that everyone else is reading.


  7. I have this book and keep meaning to get to it – I’m pretty sure I picked it up a few years ago as a remainder. You’ve inspired me to try to read it in bits!

    I have to say I agree with Bill. I think writers are doing their job, or, enough of them are, anyhow, to keep important issues of today to the fore. Of course, I wouldn’t say no to more, but …

    I’ve started to say so many things here, and then deleted them, because I can’t quite work out what I want to say, except that I’m uncomfortable about telling writers what to write. I understand/agree that we don’t want a world where writers don’t confront the important issues of the day. The thing is, though, that I don’t want a world where we tell writers what to write, and I don’t want a world where that’s ALL that writers write. You’re probably not saying this, but I just want to make the point!

    My feeling is that there IS the space for writers to write the big issues because we see it happening (I would add Charlotte Wood’s “The natural way of things” as an activist work!) I don’t think there’s less space than there has been before? But, that’s just my gut feeling based on no evidence whatsoever! I think it’s easy to glorify the past and think there was more then because the “lighter stuff” has been left behind, and what’s left, mostly, are the shining lights.

    Also, there are books that address the big universal issues – more abstract things like what does it mean to love, the issue of revenge versus forgiveness, the role of the imagination, what is art and how does it relate to our lives, what does it mean to be good or humane, and so on. The Murnanes, the Castros? Winton looks at modern masculinity – albeit from different angles – in books like Breath and The shepherd’s hut. Where do these fit in?


    • Indeed, we could talk about this all day and still have more to say. I agree about not telling writers what to say, Stalin tried that and look how that turned out…
      But surely we can agree that TV is trivial now, compared to how it was.? Of course there is the occasional oasis, such as the recent Total Control, but there’s much more inane comedy, reality TV and truncated tabloid-orientated current affairs. No one could hope to know what’s going on in the world by watching TV.


      • We could — and it’s hard to do it in writing isn’t it.

        And yes, authoritarian regimes are what I was thinking when talking about telling writers what to write.

        As for TV, hmm. Total Control was good, but it wasn’t perfect – there were some parts that I thought were gratuitous, and other parts that were unrealistic, but overall it made the points it needed to make.

        I agree that a lot of TV seems trivial. It’s particularly disappointing when the news focuses on local drama rather than bigger picture issues. I feel for the journalists who want to do the analysis and instead have to go for ratings.

        But the problem is I’m determined not to be yet another older person telling others that things were better in the old days! The way I see it is that the media landscape is changing. People who want serious information can, I think, still find it but in different places to before. It was ever thus I think ie that people shift as the landscape shifts?


        • Ha! The problem with that is that I don’t think of myself as an older person! LOL They can say ‘boomer’ as much as they like but I refuse to let it apply to me. I have always wanted things to be better than they are, and I’m going to go on wanting that till forever. No one is going to tell me that I can’t say what I want to because they think I fit some preconceived idea about older people shutting up.
          Re trivial TV, just idly watching it yesterday I was struck by the inane reportage of our Very Hot Day. The usual footage of people at the beach. How does that make country folk feel, or even people in the vast majority of Melbourne’s suburbs who are miles from a beach and are baking inside their houses? The ABC needs to do things differently. They should bring a crew to my place to film how over time and without great expense, we have made an old house, built totally wrong for passive cooling, into a place where we have AC (with solar to power it) but *don’t use it*, not until we are well into a heat wave. The ABC needs to offer hope, and to show strategies for successful coping with The New Normal.


          • LOL Lisa, I’m afraid to say that whether we like it or not we are in the older person category, we are boomers, and what we say and do will be seen that way. There’s no escaping it – it shows in our bodies. And it shows – and this I’m very consciously aware of – whenever we talk about pasts that younger people weren’t here for. So, my attitude is to embrace who I am and show young women that there’s nothing wrong with being older. It’s a natural part of life. My plan is not to “sound” like an older person, but to show that older people can keep up, be positive and active. In a way, we are probably aiming for the same thing but say it in different ways. My mission is for my friends and I to accept our age and then show what that age can be. Hence I proudly – sometimes seriously, sometimes tongue in cheek – announce that I’m old (though I don’t always think that I am!!) Does that make sense?

            That said, always wanting things to be better is an excellent goal, no matter how old we are!


  8. […] reminds me of a book I read recently: Literary Activists, Writer-intellectuals and Australian public life, by Brigid Rooney (2009). Rooney’s book is targeted at an academic audience, and it focussed mainly on the great […]


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