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.
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.”
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.