"THERE is an appealing concept behind The Great Australian Novel. French literary critic Jean-Francois Vernay has distilled nearly two centuries' worth of literary history into what he characterises as a "cinematic essay".
Beginning in the early 19th century, he works his way chronologically through the main developments in Australian fiction, periodically interrupting his narrative to provide what he describes as "close-ups", "low angle shots" or "panoramic views" of key authors and texts.
The book can be read as an accessible introductory guide and as a concise critical essay that outlines some of the main themes and controversies that have shaped Australian literature.
Many of the tropes Vernay explores are familiar, though acquire a certain novelty by virtue of being reinterpreted from the perspective of a critic who is not Australian. His study considers the mythologisation of the bush, the cultural anxieties that accompanied a burgeoning colonial literature, the tensions that arose in the mid-20th century between the competing aesthetics of social realism and modernism, depictions of suburbia, the rise of feminism in the 1970s, indigenous writing and Australia's long history of literary hoaxes. He also finds room to discuss various forms of generic writing, including early colonial romances, war novels and pulp fiction.
In the second half of the book, Vernay teases out a number of ideas that, though not necessarily groundbreaking, are perhaps less conventional, less immediately associated with the traditions of Australian literature. In the vogue for what came to be known as grunge fiction in the 90s, he sees a parallel with the "decadent" literature that flourished in Europe in the late-19th century; and the pages in which he discusses some recent examples of speculative fiction and the emergence of a distinctively Australian version of the psychological novel are among the most interesting in the book."
Source: The Australian, June 2011. 11/06/2011.