Australia, Black Inc, Book review, Geraldine Brooks, long form essay, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 76 pages; 2022.

On Tim Winton is the latest volume in an ongoing series — about Australian writers by Australian writers — which now spans 11 titles. I had previously read On Helen Garner and much enjoyed it, so I was keen to read this one which was published at the tail end of last year.

The subject of this long-form essay is Tim Winton, who is arguably one of Australia’s most decorated and much-loved writers. He’s also one of the few who is published abroad and enjoys an international reputation.

The same could be said of the essay writer. Geraldine Brooks grew up in Sydney, became a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and has six novels to her name, including March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006.

I’ve read plenty by the former (see here) and none by the latter, but the match — that is, getting Brooks to write about Winton — seems ideal: Brooks has a well-honed eye for the cadence and feel of Australian writing because she’s lived abroad for so long (she became an American citizen in 2002) and Winton’s writing is quintessentially Australian.

My island home

Here’s how she describes discovering Winton’s award-winning (and beloved) Cloudstreet in a London bookshop in 1991:

Three pages into Cloudstreet and I could see it, smell it, taste it. Home. I could hear it: our idiom, in all its insouciant vitality, delivered with uncompromising fidelity. Australian writing. Cringe-free. No fucks given if people in New York and London don’t get it.
Tim Winton was writing for us.

What she really loves about that novel, which chronicles the lives of two working-class families sharing a house in Perth, Western Australia, was the way she could identify with its themes and characters.

I had never read a novel that grazed so closely against my own lived experience. It was an unvarnished vision, meticulous in its recollection of the banal, the mundane and the sometimes cruelly philistine nature of mid-century Australian life; vivid in its evocation of the straitened options of the working class, especially working-class women; subtle but frank in its portrayal of the negation and misapprehension of Aboriginal culture.
But it wasn’t only that. This was no cringy put-down. These lives were also funny and passionate, full of imagination and yearning, glimmering with the possibility of transcendence. It was a capacious, generous giant of a novel, Russian in its ambitions, Melvillian in its digressions, Marquezian in its flashes of magic realism. All this, but all ours.

She goes on to describe Winton’s fiction as “acutely class aware” and suggests that by remaining true to his Western Australian roots — “ignoring the siren song of expatriate cosmopolitanism” and the “gravitational tug of Sydney and Melbourne” —  he has “polished his parochialism to a diamond brightness”. She argues that it is this sense of place and the mining of his own experiences for his fiction that makes his writing so distinctively Australian.

Christian values

What also makes him different from many of his compatriots, Brooks argues, is his religious upbringing which was far outside of the Australian mainstream:

The biblical cadence in Cloudstreet is no accident. Winton grew up in a family that read the Scriptures the way my family read the daily newspapers: habitually, fervently, in the conviction that information important to the conduct of one’s everyday life was contained there.

His Christianity, she says, is most obvious in his 1986 novel, That Eye, the Sky, a story about an adolescent whose father is paralysed in an accident and then “rescued” by a visiting evangelist, a scenario which is mirrored in his own life — Winton’s father, a motorcycle cop, was almost killed in a road accident when Winton was a young boy and during his long convalescence was helped by an evangelist who “shifted the Winton family to an urgent, immersive form of worship”.

While his religious tendencies might be less obvious in his later work, Brooks suggests that all his writing is about love, mercy, kindness and liberation — and the Jewish concept of repairing the shattered world. “Winton’s protagonists are always shattered”, she writes. “No one is whole. Everyone is in pieces.”

Literary criticism

Later she discusses the criticism his writing has attracted from the literary establishment and academics. The first is that his novels are too focused on plot, something literary novels are not supposed to be preoccupied by, and second, that his female characters are “too damaged”. Brooks writes that it’s infantilising and offensive to suggest that novelists should only create ideal women:

Never mind that Winton’s men generally are in much worse shape than the women, each one of them staggering under a dense pack of human flaws and moral failings. But all of them, his men and women, are vibrantly alive.

His strength, she points out, is his ability to examine Australian white working-class maleness. To vilify him for this is ironic, she says, especially at a time when anyone writing outside of their lived experience is roundly condemned.

Winton, of course, has done some condemning of his own. His passion for nature, particularly the ocean, has turned him into an environmental advocate. On the rare occasions when he has “stepped out of his carefully woven cocoon of privacy” to lend his voice to a cause he has been impassioned, brave and instrumental in making an impact.

I can vouch for his no-holds-barred approach: I was in the audience at last year’s Perth Festival when he resoundingly called out the organisers for relying on sponsorship money from fossil fuel companies in a speech that Brooks describes as “blistering”. It’s an apt interpretation. (You can read more about his speech here and here.)

On Tim Winton is an eloquent and insightful essay about one of the most successful writers Australia has ever produced. It has made me itch to dig out all those Winton novels I’m yet to read — there’s about four in my TBR — and to re-read those I already have.

23 thoughts on “‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks (Writers on Writers series)”

  1. Well, I know Geraldine Brooks’ writing and know her to be a reliable and engaging writer. But to my shame, I’ve never even heard of Tim Winton. What you’ve written tells me I really need to put that right. So I will.


  2. Gosh, I have to confess that I never picked up on the religiosity.
    But I’ve only read four of them. I’m not a great fan. That parochialism she speaks (the Thomas Hardy of WA) of just makes me think he should get out more.


    1. Yea, the religious elements aren’t obvious but I knew about his upbringing when I saw an old interview with him (filmed here in Freo) years ago. Listening to his speech at the Perth Festival last year I couldn’t help but think it was delivered with all the fervour of a preacher!

      Admittedly, I’m a late convert to his work: I deliberately shunned it for years because I thought it was about toxic masculinity (which it’s not). Brooks is right when she says it’s about working class white Australian men in “all their peculiarities” rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. I think it’s important to hear those voices.

      The idea that he should get out more makes me laugh! I think he just writes about what he knows. There’s a quote in the book that explains why he’s never written outside of his experience: “The truth is, a family and a home town will afford you material to last a lifetime”. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Hmmm… not sure about this… I think he’s pretty switched on and engaged and done some amazing things defending the Ningaloo Reef, for instance. But do you mean you’d wish he’d set his books outside of Australia? Because what I love about all my favourite writers — Per Petterson, Jennifer Johnston, John McGahern et al — is that they write about the places they grew up in (and remain living in) and it’s that special knowledge of a place that makes their work so wonderful because they know it and the people so well. I’d hate it if Jennifer Johnston, for instance, set one of her books in the US as a way of engaging with the world because it just wouldn’t ring true (and it’d probably be criticised as a marketing ploy!) 🤷🏻‍♀️

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I don’t dispute that he’s been a good campaigner for the environment. But… I don’t know… I haven’t read him since that ridiculous book Breath… it’s like he’s in his own little world and he doesn’t care about the big issues that affect Australia. I liked Cloudstreet, I think it’s an important book. But has he ever written a book about people affected by natural disasters, for example? It’s been a long time since he wrote about the whaling industry, has he tackled the mining industry that keeps WA afloat? To me, it’s just another author churning out stories about dysfunctional people, and I’ve read enough of those.


          2. He takes a poke at mining in Eyrie, a book I should probably read again given it’s set in Fremantle and when I first read it I’d never been here before much less made it my home! I loved that book because he has a go at Australian complacency, the take-it-for-granted generation that’s never endured a recession etc (all pre-pandemic of course) and is pretty hard hitting about it.

            Take your point about dysfunctional people, but dysfunctional people are what makes the literary fiction world go round! 😆


  3. I found the religious focus of Winton’s memoir (I forget its name) made it unreadable. I’m neither a Brooks ffan nor a WInton fan, though I think he has done some interesting stuff, but not Cloudstreet!


  4. I’ve not read much of his work, but I remember when he was in town back in 2014, I think. He was the last guest at our annual readers’ festival (back in the day when still had foreign writers visit) and it seemed the organizers were dismantling the place around him. As a volunteer and an interested audience member I was so terribly embarrassed. The theatre was packed with mostly middle-aged fans holding stacks of his books, and the person interviewing him had clearly done no more than thumb through one his books she chanced across at a B&B! Poor Tim tried his best to figure out what she was asking. At one point she asked him about how well he had known a writer who died before he was born! His many fans were clearly upset. But he was very gracious and insisted on staying and signing every book that was brought to him and having a few words with each person.

    On a personal level, I was interested to hear him talk about being a stay-at-home parent when he started out—a very uncommon role for a man at the time that earned him plenty of concerned looks at the playground with his kids!


    1. Oh dear… that would have been his Eyrie book tour cos he went to London too and I got to interview him. He’s quite shy and introverted, but he’s also practical and humble, so I imagine he wouldn’t have been too put off by people dismantling the venue while he was sitting there signing books! And yes, he raised his family (his wife was a nurse, I believe she’s now retrained as a marine scientist) and continues to play a big role in his grandchildren’s lives.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved your review, Kim! Feel inspired to take out my Tim Winton books and read them! Thanks for sharing 😊 Tim Winton, the one and only 🔥🔥🔥


      1. I haven’t read it yet, but I think I might like Dirt Music the most, because it is about music 🙂 Which is your favourite Tim Winton, Kim?


          1. Thanks for sharing, Kim. I have The Riders. Will try to read it soon. Sorry to know that the ending of Dirt Music wasn’t satisfying. Will keep that in mind when I read it.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was brilliant, it’s the only one of hers I’ve read but I loved it. I will look out for this one too, it sounds like a generous celebration of Winton’s work.


    1. I love this Writers on Writers series… just need to hunt more of them out. I also probably need to read something by Geraldine Brooks. For some weird reason I get her mixed up with Shirley Hazzard, goodness knows why 🤷🏻‍♀️


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