Saturday, January 13, 2007

Helen Darville-Demidenko, and where are all the Australian Xer lit-fic authors?

In today’s Oz*. Imre Salusinszky runs a mostly standard boomer-conservative view on the causes of, and remedies for, the decline in Australian-authored literary fiction since the mid-1980s. Viz, if only universities focused more on literary canons, and less on pomo/cultural studies, more Ye Olde Style reader-consumers would increase the demand for Australian lit-fic, or at least backlist stuff.

Even ignoring the absence of frontlist/fresh lit-fic from this supposed panacea, it’s a superficial argument. Lurking close beneath is a grisly old bone: generationalism, and in particular some unfinished boomer-vs-Xer business from the mid-1990s. Salusinszky indirectly admits as much, in taking a swipe at Mark Davis (author of Gangland (1997)) over the cause of – but not the fact of – Australian lit-fic’s decline:

“The real crime of Davis’s band of oldies was not their years but the fact that each of them, in his her own fashion, had dared question some element of the groupthink that dominates our intellectual culture.”

Yes, Salusinszky really is asserting that boomers are/were the iconoclastic outlaws of Australian letters. Which makes Xers the conformists/PC-disciples, I assume – despite the fact that boomers get – in the mid-90s as now – almost all the lit crit column inches, and that lit-fic’s decline has had disproportionate impact on Xer (would-be) authors. In other words, Xers have – improbably, somehow – loudly doomed themselves to their own eternal silence in a black-hole of groupthink from which nothing – of publishable quality – escapes.

Admittedly, Mark Davis did no favour to Xers in this regard by repeatedly hoisting Xers’ colours to the PC/pomo/DIY mast in Gangland. Student, as opposed to teacher ownership of pomo – very few Xers were academics in the mid-1990s – is an odd claim to make, albeit Davis indiscriminately throws “good” boomer academics like Meaghan Morris and McKenzie Wark into his Xercentric progressivist soup-mix. On balance, Davis unmistakably hands over a poisoned, boomer-crafted chalice to Xers, on an utter “no returns” basis.

The poisoned chalice Xers vicariously got – being held responsible for the worst excesses of the Western boomer cultural revolution, despite never having been in charge of anything germane or strategic – is exemplified in Davis’s peculiar# defence of Helen Darville-Demidenko’s The hand that signed the paper. Just because Helen D-D was an Xer conspicuously bullied by some** boomers, it doesn’t make her a suitable, and still less an exemplary, Xer martyr.

In fact, a decade and a bit after the Demidenko affair, the whole thing smells like a cynical boomer set-up. That is, Darville-Demidenko – consciously or otherwise, I don’t know, or particularly care – so spectacularly shat in the nest of Xer lit-fic that almost nothing and no one has been able to live in there again, to this day. Game set and match to the boomers.

The shame is then that Darville-Demidenko (now Helen Dale) has still not been properly held to account for what she did, despite – or because of – all the boomer-vs-boomer column inches under the bridge. Davis devotes half a page (p 222) to Darville-Demidenko, as lone human agent rather than PC/pomo in general, being the main issue at stake but then necessarily quickly moves on.

For Davis – a boomer writing an anti-boomer screed – a slippery martyr manque is a good Xer martyr, and there are few if any Xers who have so trashed their generation’s authorial reputation for so few shekels## as Helen Dale.

* “Left for dead over lit crit” Australian 13 January 2007

** Boomers were also Darville-Demidenko’s loudest commentariat supporters: Peter Craven (at first), Miles Franklin judges David Marr and Jill Kitson, and Andrew Riemer. Davis’s labelling Darville-Demidenko’s critics as “the bulk of the [boomer hegemon] literary community” (Gangland pp 218) is perverse. Where Xers managed to get a word in – Guy Rundle and Gideon Haigh did, at least – they had only unkind words for their age peer Darville-Demidenko.

# Davis’s defence is certainly not unqualified (Gangland pp 213, 226), but it is oddly passionate and prolix. His strongest point is contrasting the critical reception of THTSTP with Helen Garner’s The first stone – another controversial work of faction published in the mid-90s, but this time boomer-authored, and not at all coincidentally, near-universally praised by the boomer commentariat. Davis then undermines his own argument, however:

“But the questions that were asked of The hand that signed the paper weren’t asked of The first stone, even if, as it turned out, many of the protagonists in both debates were the same”.

Here, Davis is saying that THTSTP’s essential controversy – its naked anti-Semitism – is on a par with Garner’s bitchy dissing of two young/Xer women for being PC wowsers in their response to real-life sexual harassment. Apart from their divergent scale, the two controversies widely differ in that anti-Semitism has no generational angle whatsoever, while The first stone was nothing but ugly boomer bullying of Xers.

## Or more accurately, a deposit on a house in Rockhampton, as Frank Devine gormlessly informed us in yesterday’s Oz.

(another facet to this story)

Listening to Helen Dale on Radio National last year I was struck by how succintly she summed up the Xer situation.

Essentially she was saying she was led to believe as a young 'un that by hard work and developing skills then there would be a place for her in the (arts)community. Then to find that there are NO places left for the next gen (read genX) in that community, almost hostile to anyone suggesting access to any of the opportunities the encumbents had enjoyed.

Often I find Xers, myself included, who were inspired in their chosen profession by the generation before them, taking cues on how to progress in that profession by that generation - to be confronted by structures created by the inspiring generation that essentially keep them in higher and higher paid jobs and no one else gets a look-in.

I was impressed by Helen's no bullshit in calling it like it is ... then I stumbled across this blog and your voice and arguements are very similar to hers ... confirming the suspicion that had been building up in me ... 'maybe its not our fault we are screwups -- maybe, just maybe we were conned by the boomers'.

I haven't read anything about the THTSTP incident - only that radio interview, where Helen D. explained what happened - she naively was protecting her source, an old nazi in her neighbourhood she had befriended, so to protect him she turned herself into the source.

The dynamic of the interview was interesting, the, I presume boomer, presenter was pumping Helen D, a hard boiled pragmatist, to talk about 'becoming another person' and 'exploring identities' and a whole host of other airy fairy stuff - to which Helen D. responded - 'I had no time to go there - I was just trying to survive'. The presenter simply couldnt understand there was no spiritual or deeper dimension to it!

Such a typical boomer to Xer dialogue ... they are stuck in the 70's living on the dole in Byron Bay and just don't 'get' the Xer who is scratching the dirt and scratching their heads just to find some money for the rent.
You're spot on Casionova, which means I've been a tad harsh on Helen, particularly if her more recent incarnations are factored in.

I also discovered, after writing the post, an Xer-ish sounding c.2005 journal article by Helen: "The Hand Behind The Hand Behind". It doesn't appear to be online, and I haven’t read it, but it's referenced here:
In it, she apparently attacks the “literary establishment” (i.e. boomer bores) – always a welcome opinion, of course.

That said, I believe she’s yet to be fully honest, which means facing her demons, and so, inter alia, pointedly shitting on her one-time (and still?) champions like David Marr. That the local neighbourhood Nazi (who she apparently referred to on RN recently) really exists simply does not compute. Robert Manne’s book shows Helen had a Nazi (et al) war-crimes fascination, derived from the media and not a first-person account, well before she left high school. Then there’s her copious plagiarism of historical sources in THTSTP, the low probability of the ostensible informant having flown under the authorities’ radar to date, and the high probability of the informant, if he really existed, having died in the intervening 12 years since THTSTP was published (if alive, he would now be aged 90+). If he was real and dead, no legal harm would be caused by his naming, and Helen would then get to say a big “na na na NA na” to all and sundry.
well in terms of her not being fully honest she did reinvent herself as a small town lawyer ... :)

of the neighbourhood nazi - she did mention he died soon after the THTSTP controvery, and that is why she can talk of him now, so that could lineup.
I think she isnt going na na na because she could simply be over it and couldnt be bothered, mixed with a bit of wariness about the boomers bite.
(again gauging by how she came across on the RN itnerview)

-- and a thankful aside from thinking about Helen D. :--

cheers for your blog Paul, I had personally reached a lot of the same conclusions and appeared to be alone in seeing these ... then saw your work with the stats and the smarts, aha! so I wasnt just a whinging paranoid Xer.

I have since pointed this boomer dynamic out to other Xer friends and the relief as the penny drops ..
'so, its NOT our fault our lives are so screwed up ... !'

(my cohorts are those who graduated into the recession - 1970,1,2)

it doesnt get anyone a home or a job but at least your researched boomer bashing abates the suicidal self blame

kudos to you mr watson.
Thanks for your kind words, Casionova. For posterity, I'll post-it note that the recession you referred to was in 1990-92 (not c. 1970 - an obvious typo, or maybe a deep-down Freudian slip - wasn't the acid in 1970 half as strong and twice the price as the sixties' stuff: what a major, major bummer, man).

Just a couple of belated thoughts on Helen D, too. While she was at uni during the depth of the recession, she did have the strange honour of being a HECS baby - she started uni in 1989, knowing that she was going into the brave new world of higher-ed-as-sausage-machine. (Most early HECS-debt bondees, myself included, were caught blind-sided mid- or late-course.)

Also, Helen D did have several siblings, but they were apparently all much older (i.e. boomers, most likely). Again, this presumably gave her an edge in dealing with with the 1990s boomer ascendancy. (I have no boomer siblings, parents, or aunts/uncles (or cousins that I've seen since the 70s), and so got a rather rude surprise in adulthood, beginning with HECS, and non-stop ever since.)
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