Michael Wilding Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Michael Wilding 1942–-

English-born Australian short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

Wilding's reputation as a major figure in contemporary Australian literature, particularly as a writer of short stories, has been broadly defined by three principal concerns. The first of these considerations is the cultural contrast between England, where he was born and came of age, and Australia, the country where he ultimately established himself as a writer. The second of Wilding's preoccupations is the relationship between the experience of everyday reality and the fictive representation of this knowledge in literature. Lastly is Wilding's portrayal of how political forces impinge on the lives of the individuals in his fiction.

Biographical Information

Wilding was born in Worcester, England, in 1942. He attended Oxford University and following his graduation in 1963, moved to Australia for three years to pursue an academic career. After a return to England, during which he taught at the University of Birmingham, Wilding decided to become a permanent resident of Australia. In 1969 he secured an appointment as Reader in English at the University of Sydney. That same year Wilding published his first book, a critical study of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Wilding gained recognition as a fiction writer with the publication in 1972 of his first short story collection, Aspects of the Dying Process, and his founding, along with Frank Moorhouse and Carmel Kelly, of Tabloid Story, a publication that introduced a “new wave” of experimental writing to Australian readers. The short fiction published in Tabloid Story was influenced by the postmodernist works of such American authors as William S. Burroughs, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Donald Bartheleme. In addition, the Australian writers who contributed to the pages of Tabloid Story explored sexually explicit subjects to an extent previously unseen in Australian letters, leading to a revolution in both narrative style and subject in the literature of Australia. With Pat Woolley, Wilding established the small-press Wild & Woolley in 1973. The books issued by Wild & Woolley, along with Wilding's position as Australian editor of the English journal Stand, exerted a considerable influence on the Australian literary scene throughout the 1970s. Upon these beginnings, Wilding established himself as a significant Australian author, a position that has been further bolstered by the publication of his subsequent novels and short story collections.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In opposition to the staid social and literary conventions of 1940s and 1950s England, Australia offered Wilding a vibrant, youth-centered culture that was open to innovation and experimentation in both life and literature. Reflecting this opposition, Wilding's early collections Aspects of the Dying Process and The West Midland Underground (1975) feature characters living within, and sometimes torn between, the psychologically and socially repressive culture of postwar England and the liberation and utopian ideals of Australia. Nevertheless, in each of these worlds, Wilding portrays his characters as viewing their lives through the medium of fiction. The importance of fiction in human life is conveyed in the structures and techniques of Wilding's short stories. While his early stories set both in England and Australia follow the conventions of realistic fiction, the works with which he is more often associated draw attention to themselves as fictive constructs. This approach—which often avails itself of elements from fables, myths, and popular genres such as science fiction—very much follows the literary trends evident from the 1960s to the 1980s in the works of prominent postmodernist American writers. After writing stories in this fashion over the course of several collections, Wilding later began to emphasize theme over experimentation in his stories, specifically topics relating to the political realities of Australia, including the country's role in assisting the war effort of the United States in Vietnam. In the works that resulted, such as the title story in the 1988 collection Under Saturn, Wilding's sought to bring a political perspective to his work without sacrificing aesthetic interest and inventiveness to the drab realism that is typically the hallmark of “engaged” fiction.

Critical Reception

Wilding's fiction has received scant critical notice and has seldom seen publication outside of his adopted homeland of Australia. Nevertheless, his contribution to the development of Australian writing, most importantly his introduction of postmodernist narrative techniques to a country whose literature was previously dominated by the conventions of literary realism, is profound and has been well documented by commentators of his work. Leon Cantrell, in his examination of The Short Story Embassy (1975), wrote that the novel “points our fiction in a new direction,” an assertion that numerous critics have applied to the whole of Wilding's yield as a short fiction writer.