Australia and New Zealand Short Fiction Summary


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Frank O’Connor has suggested in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1963) that the short story flourishes best in an incompletely developed culture such as a regional culture. Existing outside the centers of society confers the status of outsider, which, O’Connor argues, characterizes modern short fiction. It is perhaps this reason that explains, more than any other, the fact that the short story has been claimed at various times as the paradigmatic prose form for both Australia and New Zealand. The sense of isolation and distance from the centers of culture that mark the development of the literature of both countries is served by the brevity and uncertainty inherent in the short-story form. In addition, particularly during the early period of colonization, writers have faced the difficulty of publishing longer works and have turned instead to the periodical as a means of publishing and distributing their writing.

The development of the short story in Australia and New Zealand has been motivated by a desire to distinguish the literature from that of Europe. This tendency to react against foreign forms is particularly noticeable in the work of Henry Lawson and Frank Sargeson. However, it would be a mistake to read the cultures and literatures of Australia and New Zealand as interchangeable or even as reflective of each other. While there has been some cross- fertilization, the development of the literatures of each country has been distinct and separate. Furthermore, a study that identifies the literatures closely with each other tends to obscure the influences of other cultures—European and American—which come into play in the development of a national literature.

The Short Story in Australia

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The short story is frequently claimed to express something particularly Australian, as Marion Halligan and Roseanne Fitzgibbon have said in The Gift of Story: Three Decades of UQP Short Stories (1998): “a kind of sternness belonging to the frontier mentality which gave us our being, plain and no nonsense, or as a laconic but sensitive expression of pain.” Alternatively, the aptness of the form has been traced back to the lifestyle of the early settlers and pioneers: telling yarns around the campfire, filling the cultural void with stories from the “old country.” It has even been suggested that the origins of the Australian short story lie in the aboriginal oral tradition that was captured by bushmen and translated into an English speaking tradition. These explanations may be attractively mythic, but the real reasons for the dominance of the form in the early stages of Australia’s literary history are more prosaic. The sense of cultural inauthenticity common to many colonial nations and a short history (at least in European terms) was conducive to the construction of short rather than lengthy narratives. Furthermore, by enabling the gathering of multiple stories into a single volume—in anthologies, collections or periodicals—a more complete sense of a new and unique culture could be created.

Although stories were published in Australia from early in the nineteenth century, it is the short fiction of the late nineteenth century that...

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The Short Story in New Zealand

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The dominance of the short story in the development of prose literature in New Zealand is even more marked than it is in Australia. As Clare Hanson observes, the short story “seems to be the mode preferred by those writers who are not writing from within a fixed and stable cultural framework.” The short story, with its brevity and ellipses, captures the uncertainties in national cultural identity. For New Zealand the difficulty of national self-definition is arguably greater than it is for Australia; the country must not only define itself against the colonizer Britain and increasingly America but also assert its cultural independence from Australia, looming large off its west coast.

Stories from the colonial period are largely tales and yarns. Writers such as Lady Barker, G. Born Lancaster, and Blanche Baughan are concerned primarily with documenting the new country. This documentary zeal was intended for a foreign audience at “home” in England, but it was also a way of making sense of a new and alien space. The desire to assert a unique literary voice strengthened in the late nineteenth century. As in Australia, this bid for literary identity was facilitated by a lively magazine culture. In particular, Zealandia was established by William Freeman in 1889 as a “distinctively national literary magazine.” To foster the development of New Zealand literature he ensured that his contributors were all local and the magazine included a complete tale and an article descriptive of a part of New Zealand in each issue. In that way, the magazine perpetuated the documentary emphasis within the burgeoning literature and not only established the short story as a way to describe New Zealand but also made it a viable genre economically for local writers.