The Best Australian Essays 2006 – a review

When Nicholas Gruen asked me to review The Best Australian Essays 2006 published by Black Inc  (in which his essay on Adam Smith – workshopped right here at Club Troppo earlier this year –  features), the first question I asked myself was a  really basic one.   What is an essay?   Not the sort we inflict on our victims students at university or high school, but the literary genre “essay”?

The ubiquitous Wikipedia (which incidentally gets slagged along with Google in an entertaining if not especially profound essay by Gideon Haigh  in BAE 2006) asserts that there’s substantial definitional overlap between the essay, the article and the short story.    Fair enough for “article”, but surely a short story is a work of fiction while an essay is  almost always  in the realm of non-fiction.

Every source I checked, including both Wikipedia and the introduction to  The Best Australian Essays 2006  by its editor Drusilla Modjeska, observed that the essay genre (or at least its label) was invented by Montaigne.   Wikipedia also quotes a rather more informative observation by Aldous Huxley about the essay form:

Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne’s Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Com©die Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal.

BAE 2006 certainly contains works from each of the personal, factual and abstract/universal poles, and the best of  its essays embody more than one of those poles.  

However, my own expectations  for a work in the essay genre are better encapsulated in an essay about essays by Paul Graham:

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

If I want a piece of didactic, ideologically loaded writing, I can always read the op-ed pages of any newspaper, or for that matter most blog posts.   An essay needs to be more reflective, teasing out nuances of a topic in a way that surprises and delights (or frightens or saddens).  

Quite a few of the essays in BAE 2006 are of that sort, but quite a few disappoint.   BAE 2006 is a literary curate’s egg: good in parts. Every couple of essays I’d find myself thinking: “If these are Australia’s best essays I’d hate to see the worst”.   But then I’d reach a little gem that restored my faith and kept me reading with interest and pleasurable if not breathless anticipation.    BAE 2006  isn’t a rivetting summer holiday page-turner by any means, but it’s certainly worth purchasing, especially if you live in Melbourne and can take advantage of Nicholas Gruen’s generous discount offer.   Of the 32 published essays, I found 16 of them well worth reading.   That isn’t a bad hit rate, although I must admit my expectations before reading it were a little higher given the  tag “best”.  

Over at Lava Rodeo, several of the commenters observe that the blogosphere generates numerous essays every bit as good a  (and in some cases better than) most of the works anthologised in BAE 2006.   I agree.   Certainly the personal essays by Ampersand Duck and Kerryn Goldsworthy mentioned in today’s Missing Link are just as moving and finely crafted as their equivalents in BAE 2006, as is almost anything Don Arthur writes and lots of David Tiley’s posts as well.  

However, I’m not meaning to damn this book  with faint praise. The best of the essays published in BAE 2006 are very fine pieces of writing indeed.   I  particularly enjoyed Alan  Frost’s From the Reef Country, a gentle reminiscence about growing up as the son of a  school teacher in country Queensland in the 1940s and 50s,  especially its shocking and unexpected  conclusion.   And Anne  Deveson’s The Man Who Escaped, about her ambivalent relationship with her British Raj era  father,  with its background of the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore in 1942, is a beautiful and evocative piece of writing.   Just as impressive, while we’re lingering at Huxley’s personal/autobiographical pole, is Georgia Blain’s essay Writing About Us, dealing movingly with her brother’s schizophrenia, drug addiction and inevitable death.

At Huxley’s factual pole, several essays stand out too.  Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man reminded me of the best of Helen Garner’s writing  – documentary in subject matter but literary in  sensibility and with the author and her reactions  forming  a  counterpoint  in the narrative.   It tells the story of the inquest into the death of Cameron Doomadgee at Palm Island (for which a  local police officer was  recently found responsible by the coroner, but who is yet to be charged with any offence AFAIK).   Chris Sarra’s Armed for Success tells of the author’s  passion and dramatic success  in improving indigenous kids’ school attendance and literacy levels in outback Queensland.    Like Noel Pearson, Sarra is a refreshing voice in a mostly depressing Aboriginal policy landscape.

Crikey’s Margaret Simons also figures here at the factual pole, with an interesting essay about the pros and cons of sending kids to high school in the public system in Victoria versus the attractions of  private schools flush with funds from the Howard government.    Simons makes a strong case for her local public high school, though she’s frank enough to concede that her kids probably won’t end up going there because all their (very middle class) primary school friends are  being sent  to high school elsewhere.   It’s  a decision Jen and  I are soon facing for her daughter Jessica, and one Jenny Parish and  I wrestled with for Rebecca only a few years ago, so  I can identify with the issues  Simons discusses.

Mark McKenna’s essay Writing the Past also engaged  my interest. McKenna argues that the History  Wars have caused readers to lose faith  in the authenticity of historians’ writing, and that many  instead are tending to rely on works of ‘fictive history’  like Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River as providing a “truer” albeit fictionalised picture of Australia’s past.   McKenna’s evidence for this assertion isn’t all that convincing, but it’s interesting just the same.   If only Chris Sheil was still blogging; I’d be keen to read his reactions to this essay.

I also really enjoyed Hazel Rowley’s essay about Sartre and de Beauvoir’s trip to Brazil in 1960, and Sartre’s unconsummated affair with a beautiful and mysterious young Brazilian journalist.   Robert Hughes’ essay  The God of  Realism, about Rembrandt, is also excellent.   Alfred W. McCoy’s Outcasts of Camp Echo is also worth reading, if only as a fairly detailed exposition of issues surrounding David Hicks and  American practices at  Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.   It doesn’t tell you anything you can’t as easily read in the mainstream media (or the blogosphere)  with a quick Google, but it’s quite well written.

At Huxley’s abstract/universal pole, Nicholas  Gruen’s Adam Smith essay stands out, and  I also enjoyed philosopher Raimon Gaita’s Justice and Hope, although just about any extended blog post written by Club Troppo’s own Don Arthur is as good or better.     If Modjeska  had chosen  to draw on the rich resources of the blogosphere, BAE 2006 would almost certainly be a far better book.   Maybe Missing Link and the “best blog essays of 2006” anthology that Laura is threatening to write might help next year’s BAE editor to produce a more consistently  high quality  anthology.

I won’t dwell on the numerous dud essays in BAE 2006, except to comment that Modjeska appears in places to have made her selections based more  on the fame of the author than the quality of  his work.   Clive James’ Starting With Sludge (about his childhood reading habits – Biggles, Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond etc) is a shallow and vapid piece of work; Clive doing it by the numbers.   It has no place in any anthology bearing the label “best”.   The same goes for Robert Drewe’s Prison Diary, about his experiences as a writer in residence in a British prison, and JM Coetzee’s Roads to Translation, arguably the most turgid and boring essay in the book.   No, wait a minute, I forgot about Robert Manne’s Little America, which regurgitates every cliche ever written about the Great Satan Hegemon at inordinate length and with a breathtaking lack of insight or originality.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

Nice review, Ken.

I used to get these things as Chrissy presents a few years ago, but have discouraged people from the practice, as generally they contain nothing good I haven’t seen before and filler trash by big names, like the pieces you talk about in your last para.

I did browse it in a bookstore last week, and the only thing that made me contemplate buying it was Nicholas’ piece – but I’d read that as well courtesy of the Fin Review as well as Troppo.

I think they need to widen the net a lot, as you say.

17 years ago

Since when has reading the works of W.E.Johns and A. Conan Doyle been considered shallow and vapid? Bannerman sincerely trusts yon beak is critiquing the delivery by Mr.James and not the content matter.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Great review Ken,

I agree with all I’m qualified to – ie with all the essays you comment on that I’ve read. I’d read Robert Manne’s piece in the Monthly. I bought it on the strength of his essay I think. And, though I’m generally a fan of Manne’s I thought it was pretty lame. I’m not a fan of Clive James’ but he does write some good essays. The piece that turned up in the volume was unusually turdsome.

I liked Margaret Simons. I liked the Mark McKenna piece more than you – but then his case seemed pretty solid to me.

But I agree with your main point. They definitely need to get out some more. Drusilla Modjeska’s intro was pretty flip. A bit less than three pages. She comments that few professionals like architects and lawyers, astronomers and physicists write essays of the kind she’s anthologised and then comments that this is (partly) because newspapers don’t publish them. She comments that only one essay comes from a newspaper. Well my essay is an exception to all that – but then I sent mine in.

I can’t point to any essays of lawyers off the top of my head, but I find it hard to believe that there’ve not been some good essays by lawyers this year. They’re a pretty loquacious lot. And the AFR Review (where my piece was first published) comes out each Friday – that’s 52 odd editions a year. There’s usually good stuff in there. Quiggin’s there regularly and often saying pretty interesting things. Why wasn’t Jack Marx’s piece on himself and Russell Crowe in there?

And as you say, there are the billowing riches of the blogosphere.

So why don’t we produce an anthology of some of the best blog posts for 2007? Missing link would be a great place to start. If you can be bothered Ken, may I suggest that you present us your loyal readers with a shortlist and appoint a group to choose the ‘best’ twenty or thirty?

Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

Ken, I’m sure that we’d be happy to help co-ordinate such a project. I’ll forward on your comment to the LP bloggers’ list.

On McKenna, I don’t think he is going on sales figures. The way I’ve read most commentary about trends in book publishing is that non-fiction is trumping fiction.

On the other hand, maybe like Montaigne, his essay is an attempt to try something out. But of course you can’t talk back to an edited book!

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago


To clarify, I wasn’t really too fussed with the truth of falsity of McKenna’s claim he made that fiction was somehow displacing history – I liked McKenna’s argument against Grenville (that’s what I meant by speaking of ‘his case’.

On producing a shortlist for an anthology one way to go would be to ask chosen blog posters (and anyone else who wanted to participate) to send in what they though of as their two or three best pieces and go from there. That would cut down the editorial task of choosing the pieces a great deal.

(Mark B and I once agreed on a swap deal where we would cross post between LP and CT what we regarded as our best posts. I think we might have posted one or two pieces but it never became a regular thing.)

To add something extra, they could be invited to do any reworking they wanted to in the light of the passage of time and/or comments that have been made. That makes it a bit more special. If the BAE people had asked, I would have played around with my essay to improve it a little I expect.

Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

I think those are good suggestions, Nick.

On the revision, I don’t know whether you’d need some sort of editorial guidelines though – often blog posts are written in a hurry and would perhaps benefit from some editing, but on the other hand the immediacy of the form is an attraction.

Tony Harris
17 years ago

Clive James has written some great essays, even if he tries a little bit too hard to be funny all the time and he likes you to know how much he has read. It is a pity they couldn’t find a good one for a “best” collection. Snap up his “Reliable Essays” if you get the chance.

Essays are supposed to be reflective and also durable, unlike most blog posts which tend to relate to transient issues and are off the cuff as Mark said.

It might help to rework them as Nicholas suggested, in fact if writers knew the piece was going to end up there quite likely most of them would have been heavily revised with an eye to posterity!

17 years ago

“So why don’t we produce an anthology of some of the best blog posts for 2007?”

I reckon the trick/marketing gimmick here is publish not only the best posts but the threads they inspired as well – albeit judiciously edited to remove all the pointless praise, slagging and bagging.

Laying it out would be a great design challenge as would sorting out the copyright issues over quoting commentators.

Oh well, it was nice idea while I thought of it.

17 years ago

But I think we’re all agreed though that David Tiley’s hospital piece should have made it into any collection of great Australian writing for 2006.

If he’d published it in any dead tree media, t’would have been a shoe in for BAE 2006. But he didn’t and it didn’t which I think helps highlights the conspicious consumption snobbery of the old print media.

“Oh anyone can write any old thing on the internets. But print has built-in gate keepers, basically because it still costs money to distribute thoughts and ideas. Thank god! How else could we establish what’s worthy of being read.”

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Yes, of course David T’s hospital piece – that should have been in there for sure.

17 years ago

Ken, what was Andrew Ford’s essay on Mahler like?

17 years ago

I’ll throw my hat in the ring and offer editing and publishing assistance. I have some reasonably good publishing contacts and may be able to get the best stuff into some sort of dead tree format.

17 years ago

You’ll definately have to aim for next year, in part because I’ll be able to do some publicity for it (I have some good stuff lined up already on my own account, and for Catallaxy), and in part because dead tree stuff has a long lead time.

I’m seeing my publisher next week and will try to float the idea with him if people have reasonably concrete thoughts that they’re willing to flick to me via email. If you’re not ready to do that, at least give me an outline – possible directions etc – so I can run the idea past him. If Graham Young is in Sydney I’ll try to get him and my publisher together for coffee or something.

Happy to provide additional publicity through Catallaxy and any other avenues I can organise in the interim.