Cultural Cringe

Dear world: on behalf of the Australian people, I’d like to apologise for Christos Tsiolkas.

In my experience, one of the most irritating things about simply being Australian is that, whenever you make any initial attempt to participate in any sort of cultural enterprise alongside anyone from virtually anywhere in the Western world, you must first thwart and dismantle the preconceptions of parochialism attributed to Australians in general before you can expect others to take you seriously. The global assumption — reinforced by the “colourful” behaviour of so many Australians abroad — is that the nation itself lacks a sense of cultural sophistication and that, as a result, the people of Australia do not recognise cultural sophistication when they encounter it either within their own country or elsewhere. The assumption isn’t true, of course, or at least not on any essentialist basis; but it is widespread and resilient, and its persistence has long been a source of grief for those who champion Australian culture: “How can we best prove to the world that Australian culture is worthy of serious attention and respect?” Within Australia itself, the assumption is understood to have historically fuelled a phenomenon known as the cultural cringe: a reflexive “awareness” amongst Australian artists and their audiences that Australian art of any type is inherently inferior to the art of others — that, indeed, Australian artists “have something to prove” in the first place.

Since the 1980s, though, Australia has seen a concerted effort to shrug off the cultural cringe advanced by figures from across the political spectrum — right-wing nationalists and left-wing republicans sitting side-by-side — the result of which has been essentially an inversion of the inferiority complex that once held sway. Now, Australians in general are more likely to take such excessive pride in Australian culture as to proclaim it superior to alternative cultures the world over: “Australian culture isn’t just good on its own terms; it’s the greatest culture in the world and everything else is weak by comparison.” Unfortunately, as might be expected by anyone not so deeply invested in the perceived value of Australian culture but perhaps invested in its actual value, this attitude only reinforces the preconceptions of parochialism that persist abroad, which in turn add grist to the mill of the Australian cultural supremacists, and so we enter a vicious cycle of undue acclaim for even the most mediocre products of Australian culture and the equally undue denigration of even the best products of other, different cultures. And for those Australians who seek to engage and appreciate cultural enterprises of a global variety rather than simply dismissing them, the obnoxious actions of one’s own countrymen abroad are what kindle the parochialism globally attributed to Australians in general — and, as such, they are the root cause of the irritation that comes with simply being Australian.

Well, the beat goes on, as today one of Australia’s most juvenile novelists attracted a level of publicity that he does not deserve by making a series of characteristically sensationalist remarks with the self-satisfied ignorance typical of Antipodean triumphalism. Worse than that: there are any number of Australian novelists whose truly innovative work is inevitably the first casualty of outbursts like these which strip meaningful literary discourse of its nuances and taint it with half-baked reductive generalities, and worse still: two of Australia’s most prominent periodicals (one, two) have grunted their support for “our boy” as he takes a jab at those too-cerebral, out-of-touch, “shitey” Europeans — all this, of course, without explanation and without justification. To put it in the only sort of language that the author himself would be likely to understand, this is the literary equivalent of letting out a ten decibel fart in a crowded elevator with a dozen floors still to go before the doors rush open:

He said: “In the English-language novel there is a fear of writing about the real world. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction that’s true to the world. I read to have my assumptions challenged, to be scared, to cry. That novel isn’t being written at the moment.”

Clearly, though, the assumptions he wants to have challenged are his assumptions about the world at large rather than his assumptions about the capabilities of fiction itself — as if it was somehow the purpose of fiction to challenge one’s assumptions about the world at large! — and therein lies the problem. Will any of our literary periodicals attempt to point that out and to undertake the difficult intellectual labour of unravelling its implications? Don’t hold your breath. This isn’t about genuine cultural engagement; it’s about enlarging the profile of Australian culture the most expedient way possible: by unashamedly ripping into the culture of others. Do that, however, and you diminish the odds of the best contributors to your own culture receiving the recognition that is their due. That, more than anything else, is truly worth cringing at.

ADDENDUM: It’s true, of course, that there must be some greater context to Christos Tsiolkas’ remarks, and that they may have been sensationalised in much the same way that the comments of Gabriel Josipovici were sensationalised only last week. But among the many differences between Tsiolkas and Josipovici is that Josipovici holds and articulates genuinely provocative positions whereas Tsiolkas is himself simply — and personally — a professional provocateur. In other words, for Josipovici, it’s all about the integrity of the argument, whereas for Tsiolkas it’s about little more than the enjoyment of arguing. If there is some contextual material that throws fresh light on his comments — if there is some contextual material that makes them sound any less infantile and dismissive — I’d be interested to see it, but I’m familiar enough with his work to know better than to expect it.

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2 thoughts on “Cultural Cringe

  1. The funny thing is that the book of the ‘Best European Fiction’ Tsoilkas mentions is almost certainly the Dalkey Archive’s new annual, Best European Fiction 2010. The Dalkey Archive is, of course, a U.S. publisher with a strong bias toward experimental work–so it isn’t even representative of European fiction!

    1. I know! Which immediately made me wonder just how much European fiction Tsiolkas actually reads. I assume he has ventured beyond that one anthology: after all, it is a book of short stories and yet he specifically says that the sorts of “novels” he wants to read aren’t being written at present. But we can’t be absolutely certain — and that, I think, is by design. The perception of Tsiolkas’ limited reading of European fiction strikes me as a self-consciously integral component of his comments about the supposedly lacklustre nature of European fiction itself. It’s a classic example of Australian anti-intellectualism: “I can tell you for a fact that this book isn’t worth reading because, if it was, I would have read it. I haven’t read much beyond it because I know that reading beyond it would be pointless.” And I find that just stunning. It’s so ironic, and so sad, that someone who challenges all manner of stereotypes in his personal life here in Australia should only reinforce Australian national stereotypes as soon as he sets foot outside the country, using the bully pulpit of the Edinburgh Festival to make entirely unjustified sweeping statements that take a literally anti-intellectual approach to their subject.

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