Hello? Is that the Australian fantasy voice? What’s that? You’re an Australian writing fantasy? No, that’s not what I’m looking for. Not at all.
Oh yes, there’s most definitely a difference. Some argue it doesn’t mean very much. But today it’s very important indeed. You see, I’m writing about the Australian fantasy voice – more specifically, whether there is one. So I’m looking.
You’ll let me know if you come across it? Great, thanks so much. That’s very helpful. Okay then, bye. Yes, bye.
Well, here we are then. No evidence of a uniquely Australian fantasy voice to speak of and acres of blank screen before me. Let’s start with some Australian fantasy writers and see where that leads us.
At this year’s Perth Writers Festival, Margo Lanagan (latest publications: Yellowcake, Zombies vs Unicorns) said she had initially thought her work wasn’t particularly Australian but, on checking for the purposes of a panel discussion on the topic, found about a third of it was set in Australia or featured Australian characters.
What’s more, whether or not she intended to incorporate Australian characteristics, Lanagan’s readers, particularly those in America, seemed to think there was something identifiably Australian in every book she wrote. “They will read Australian into everything and anything odd they find they seem to think is an Australian-ism,” she said.
Lanagan didn’t think it was particularly relevant or important whether there was a unique Australian voice in fantasy.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily something that authors are individually terribly concerned with,” she said. “It doesn’t come into your work as a whole whether you are being an effective representative of your country. You are just trying to write the story that seems to need to be written and if they suggest themselves as a particularly Australian story then they come out that way.
“It just makes us look so insecure to be continually raking over this ground, to be talking about whether we are distinguishable on the world stage. It’s not really an issue.”
But she did accept that the Australian-ness of a novel could have an impact on its marketing and readership.
“My next novel that I’m working on is going to be set in New South Wales, in colonial times, and my agent tells me things like ‘I’m sure it will be wonderful because you’re writing it but I think it’s going to be a bit hard to sell’. There’s a line that quite a lot of (American) readers seem to draw. And in the UK as well, but it’s a different kind of line there. It’s not the exoticism, it’s a kind of snobbery.”
“I’m trying to get as far away from this place as I can when I write so I really don’t include too much Australiana,” he said in the PWF panel discussion. “I try to make it fairly universal I guess. When I read good British or American fantasy, it doesn’t seem particularly British or American to me, it just seems like good fantasy.
“I’m basically trying to get away from reality as we know it so I don’t try and incorporate things, familiar landmarks or familiar themes into the work because, to me, that’s the point of fantasy. One of the points of fantasy is to get away and imagine something else.”
Elliott agreed with Lanagan about international marketing, saying he had been asked to change some terms for American audiences, such as the word “ute”. But he rejected a suggestion from the audience that he was selling out.
“I haven’t been asked personally to change a whole lot,” he said. “Selling out, to me, would be removing something because it offends a political agenda or something like that. A few stylistic changes or changes in terms doesn’t offend me particularly.”
The only panellist who deliberately set out to write Australian fantasy/science fiction was Anthony Eaton (Daywards), who described his writing as “militantly Australian”. While he had a lot of positive feedback about the Aussie nature of his books at home, it had limited his international prospects.
“I have been told my publishers have been trying to sell my books overseas but particularly some of the American publishers are just not interested because they are too Australian. They are not easily convertible if you like,” Eaton said. “I’ve been told all sorts of things – focus, subject, character, the landscape is too alien.”
That last bit is a little odd when you consider we’re talking about fantasy novels. But Eaton, who set out to write identifiably Australian fantasy for his PhD, seems comfortable with his choice.
“I think everyone likes seeing their own landscape, their own world,” he said. “For me at least, the art of writing a successful fantasy is not about imagination and world-building. It’s actually about finding the little touchstones of humanity and reality and then inserting them in so that the reader has got those things to grab on to and that then extends their understanding of the whole book.
“And I think when you read a whole book that is identifiably in your country, in your land, the place you know so well, albeit 10,000 years in the future after an apocalypse, you’ve still got those little touchstones.”
So, not so much in terms of a unique Australian voice in fantasy. But we do have an awful lot of fine Australian voices in the genre, employing landscapes and characters that are and are not identifiably Australian. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Surely the aim, ultimately, is simply good fantasy?
-More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival.