Frank Moorhouse Essay - Critical Essays

Moorhouse, Frank


Frank Moorhouse 1938–-

Australian short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, and essayist.

Moorhouse is considered one of the most important and influential contemporary short story writers in Australia. Critics praise his deft portrayal of the urban landscape in modern Australia, particularly the changing sexual and social mores of post-World War II society. His experiments with the genre of the short story have spurred critical commentary, and many critics have compared his work to that of Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner.

Biographical Information

Moorhouse was born in Nowra, New South Wales, on December 21, 1938. In 1956 he moved to Sydney and began working as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph. For the next several years he worked as a journalist and editor in Sydney, an experience that contributed to his literary style and the thematic concerns of his short fiction. In 1969 he published his first volume of short stories, Futility and Other Animals. With fellow Australian writer Michael Wilding he co-founded the influential literary magazine Tabloid Story in 1972. Moorhouse has been a writer-in-residence for several Australian universities. In 1985 he adapted stories from The Americans, Baby and The Electrical Experience for the film “The Coca-Cola Kid.” Throughout the 1980s Moorhouse traveled extensively and settled in France in 1991.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Moorhouse refers to his short fiction as “discontinuous narratives,” which indicate his attempt to link his stories through characters, locations, and themes. Two of Moorhouse's recurring themes are the effects of American culture on Australians and the changing sexual mores of Australian society. Several of his stories examine the impact of an American visitor on his Australian hosts. In his collection The Americans, Baby, “The American, Paul Jonson” introduces an American businessman who gets involved in a sexual relationship with Carl, a young Australian college student. At first, Carl believes he has the moral responsibility to exploit Jonson to counter the deleterious effect of American culture, but the story ends on Carl's discovery of his homosexuality. Yet Moorhouse's main focus in his fiction is on the complexity and vicissitudes of contemporary Australian life. The Electrical Experience features stories from the life of T. George McDowell, a self-made manufacturer of soft drinks in Australia. In Conference-Ville the stories revolve around an academic seminar, with its concomitant rituals and affectations. In Forty-Seventeen, the stories involve an affair between a forty-year-old man and a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl in Australia. As the affair continues over several years, Moorhouse examines the nature of sexual attraction, love, and commitment and how it changes with age and responsibility.

Critical Reception

Moorhouse's tendency to link his stories across different short fiction collections by character, location, and thematic concerns has prompted critics to view his work in short story cycles. In this way, he has been compared to such short story writers as Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, and James Joyce. With his focus on topical contemporary themes such as the change in sexual attitudes and Australia's relationship to American culture, commentators often discuss his work as anthropology, sociology, or social history. In his realistic portrayal of contemporary urban, academic, and suburban life, reviewers praise his ability to draw material from everyday existence to illustrate the moral issues of his generation.

Principal Works

Futility and Other Animals 1969

The Americans, Baby 1972

The Electrical Experience 1974

Conference-Ville 1976

Tales of Mystery and Romance 1977

The Everlasting Secret Family and Other Secrets 1980

Room Service 1985

Forty-Seventeen 1988

Loose Living 1995

Grand Days: A Novel (novel) 1993


Brian Kiernan (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Notes on Frank Moorhouse,” in Overland, Spring, 1973, pp. 9-11.

[In the following essay, Kiernan provides a brief overview of Moorhouse's short fiction.]

With his The Americans, Baby (Angus & Robertson), Frank Moorhouse seems to have won some long deserved general recognition. The book has been received enthusiastically, though more interest has been shown in the trendy nature of his material—the Sydney push, the drug scene, student radicalism, sexual permissiveness, women's liberation et al.—than with his handling of it. Partly, one suspects, this enthusiasm is a matter of general consciousness catching up with the individual talent. Although Moorhouse, at thirty-four, is still regarded as a “young writer,” he has been writing about his urban tribe and their now suddenly ‘relevant’ preoccupations for most of the past decade, slowly winning an audience who could appreciate his sort of story and the sometimes uncomfortable integrity that was behind it. Perhaps also that old chestnut about Australian writers being obsessed with the outback and the mythic past helps explain the excited discovery that Moorhouse, like young dramatists and poets, is writing about contemporary urban Australian society. Whereas the new men are cool as spreading fern over the cultural dilemmas of Ern Malley's generation, accepting the society they know as the natural, familiar and substantial background to what they want to write about, their audiences still tend to be fascinated with the background itself.

Not that Moorhouse himself objects to this fascination with the sub-culture he has drawn upon for his fiction. “I find it complimentary that people are totally taken in by the performance and talk to me about the characters and the situations as though they were real. But they're realistic or naturalistic stories in their observed details only. There was a party for Rexroth which attended, but that story (“The American Poet's Visit”) was written long after and isn't a record of what actually happened. It's all been adjusted from a distance.” Another example of adjustment to reality is “The Jack Kerouac Wake,” a story not yet published that turns up at Sydney readings in different versions. One version is by Michael Wilding (whose own collection, which includes stories of Sydney push life, has just been published by Queensland University Press), others are by Moorhouse. Each claims to present the “true” account of a chaotic night. Each is close to the truth—but what is truth? What mainly come out of his adjustments to reality in The Americans, Baby, Moorhouse feels, are allegorical or politically representative characters. “If I were a literary critic, I'd suggest that Becker (his Coca-Cola sales executive and the anti-hero of a sequence of stories) is a human trying to be a technological giant—in fact playing one of America's major roles.”

Moorhouse's interest in Americans goes back to his boyhood memories of U.S. servicemen during the war and business associates of his father. They always seemed visitors from a remote and powerful land. When last year he went overseas for the first time his destination was New Orleans, the place that, particularly from his reading, had most excited his imagination, With Becker, the American who appears most frequently in his stories, Moorhouse twists a number of conventional expectations. In a time-honored American tradition, Becker is an innocent abroad; but it is the New World of Australia that corrupts him, a world that seems to him as remote from his home town of Atlanta, Georgia, as the moon. Becker's view of Australia is fresh and comic:

Becker was thinking this: how rarely in this foul country did the milk carton open up as the printed directions promised, “to open push up here”—push up where, for goddam. It had to do with the spread of talent across the land. For a country with a population so small they should, in terms of technology, still be peasants. That was his feeling, harsh as it may be. The way he figured it, the high-performance five-percenters were spread over too diversified an economy. By accident of history. The accident of history, as Becker saw it, was that they were English speakers. They attempted the higher technology of the main English nations. That was it. Result: milk cartons which wouldn't spout.

Becker is an outsider to Australian society as a whole, as well as to the worlds of the drag queens, speed freaks and liberated females he stumbles into. As an outsider, he is like a number of other characters who are affected by subcultural in-groups. Another example of the outsider, and of what Moorhouse sees as ‘allegorical’ or socially representative characterization, would be in “Dell Goes Into Politics.” Dell returns to her country town after an unsatisfactory affair with a Trotskyist schoolteacher in Sydney. Wanting to appear sophisticated, she speaks out boldly on Vietnam, to the amazement and embarrassment of all in the local pub. Yet, as she admits to herself at the end of the story, this has only been to evade what is really troubling her. The gulf between her political ‘awareness,’ which is no more than the holding of fashionable attitudes, and her personal experience seems to offer a more general comment about the impact of the Vietnam war on public consciousness.

For someone who sees himself partly motivated as a writer by his interest in politics and social theory, Moorhouse is cooly detached from his characters and their beliefs. As the author, he seems interested in ideology only as it affects people, and his political autobiography is relevant here:

When I was an...

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Don Anderson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Frank Moorhouse's Discontinuities,” in Southerly, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1976, pp. 26-38.

[In the following essay, Anderson explores stylistic aspects of Moorhouse's fiction, in particular his use of the “discontinuous narrative.”]

Frank Moorhouse “writes short stories and does not intend to write a conventional novel. At present completing another discontinuous narrative called The Americans, Baby. Is opposed to all censorship.” Thus, in the biographical note to the first edition of Futility and Other Animals (Gareth Powell & Associates, Sydney, 1969), Moorhouse threw down his gages. Both have been taken up. Publishers,...

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Frank Moorhouse (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “What Happened to the Short Story?” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, October, 1977, pp. 179-91.

[In the following essay, Moorhouse traces the development of his career, the structure of his short fiction collections, and the continuing influence of American literature and culture on his work.]

What now seems to characterise my work, five books published, is a persisting with related short stories or episodic structure—what I've called the discontinuous narrative. It now seems that my work grows in clusters of stories which make fragmented perceptions of characters and situations.

The discontinuous narrative appears to...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Bruce Bennett (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Frank Moorhouse and The New Journalism,” in Overland, 1978, pp. 6-14.

[In the following essay, Bennett considers the relationship between journalism and literature in Moorhouse's short fiction.]

Various attempts have been made by critics and commentators to define “literature” and “journalism”. But there is a broad measure of agreement that a distinction between the two needs to be made. Writers as different in outlook and historical circumstances as T. S. Eliot and Walter Benjamin agree on this issue, though for different reasons. Eliot defines his journalist as a ‘type of mind’ whose best writing is done ‘under the pressure of an immediate...

(The entire section is 3076 words.)

Brian Kiernan (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Frank Moorhouse: A Retrospective,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 73-94.

[In the following essay, Kiernan discusses the defining characteristics of Moorhouse's short fiction, in particular the recurring theme of the impact of American culture on Australia.]

Publication in the United States today represents for probably most Australian writers, and readers, the same kind of recognition that publication in England did for so long in the past. Until toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the establishment of local presses coincided with conscious efforts to develop a native literature, London or Edinburgh offered the...

(The entire section is 10029 words.)

C. Kanaganayakam (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Form and Meaning in the Short Stories of Frank Moorhouse,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 67-76.

[In the following essay, Kanaganayakam explores the complexity of Moorhouse's narrative style and thematic concerns.]

The short stories of Frank Moorhouse have remained so consistently complex and open-ended during the last thirteen years that any attempt to identify them as realistic, experimental or internationalist can be misleading. Since each collection explores new dimensions of experience and fresh possibilities of expression, the reader is constantly called upon to shift his focus and seek different modes of...

(The entire section is 4660 words.)

Simone Vauthier (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Ventriloquist's Act: Frank Moorhouse's ‘Pledges, Vows and Pass This Note,’” in Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Americaines, Vol. XXI, 1988, pp. 97-112.

[In the following essay, Vauthier offers a close reading of Moorhouse's short story “Pledges, Vows and Pass the Note,” and analyzes thematic and stylistic aspects of the story.]

By now, the relevance to “post-modernist” fiction of John Hawkes's “assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme” hardly needs pointing out.1 That in the process of doing away with the old elements of narrative, contemporary fictionists have also been playing games...

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Gay Raines (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Short Story Cycles of Frank Moorhouse,” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, October, 1990, pp. 425-35.

[In the following essay, Raines compares Moorhouse's use of the short story cycle to that of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and James Joyce.]

In 1981, at the end of his article ‘Frank Moorhouse: A Retrospective’, Brian Kiernan wrote the following comment about the stories in The Everlasting Secret Family:

Each may be discontinuous with the other, but discontinuity would seem to presuppose some continuity to depart from, and this latest collection suggests the ‘familial’ though...

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Further Reading


Bennett, Bruce. “Asian Encounters in the Contemporary Australian Short Story.” WLWE 26, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 49-61.

Examines the portrayal of Asian characters in Moorhouse's short fiction.

Lewis, Peter. “Reclaiming Realism.” Stand Magazine 32, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 78-84.

Compares the careers of Moorhouse and Michael Wilding.

Ross, Bruce Clunies. “Some Developments in Short Fiction, 1969-1980.” Australian Literary Studies 10, No. 2 (October 1981): 165-80.

Traces the development of the Australian short story through a survey of the work of...

(The entire section is 121 words.)