- Essays as Life WritingThe Year in Australia
Germaine Greer's essay On Rape (2018) was always supposed to provoke. Commissioned by Melbourne University Press as part of its On monograph series of novella-length essays—"little books on big ideas" that "pairs Australia's leading thinkers and cultural figures with some of the big themes in life"—On Rape was billed by its publisher as a conversation changer. Greer, a public figure with a decades-long career and profile in feminist politics, was positioned as an interventionist polemicist. "It's time," declares the text's blurb, "to re-think rape." On Rape was marketed as a fresh perspective from a well-known authority. When the essay was published in September 2018, however, Greer was dropped from scheduled appearances at two Australian literary festivals, and she appeared on television claiming that her point of view was being censored. Commentators in the media, meanwhile, detailed factual error after factual error, a reliance on outdated research, and a lack of legal reasoning or understanding (Lee). Matilda Dixon-Smith observes that perhaps the real failure of Greer's essay was in fact its lack of impact: after "one or two satisfyingly scathing reviews," the essay subsided, and Greer's opinions on the topic with it.
The essay is a prestigious form for cultural comment, and there is little doubt that Greer's existing professional biography, her well-established career, reputation for controversy, and status as a feminist, helped secure her "seat at the table" over others (Dixon-Smith). The Greer example highlights the complex ongoing relationship between expertise and celebrity—as well as subjectivity and authority—that the essay, as a life narrative form, deploys as a marketable literary product. Who is publishing essays in Australia now? In what forms and contexts? What are essayists essaying on, and which voices are being attended to? How is the personal and the autobiographical deployed in relation to the essay and for what ends? The essay is a literary form that sits at a very significant nexus of the personal and political. [End Page 1]
The Essay and Politics
Essays by prominent voices and public intellectuals are a strong feature of Australian publishing over the past year. Many of these works, however, are also not new. Both Robert Manne's On Borrowed Time (2018) and Helen Garner's True Stories: The Collected Works of Helen Garner (2018) are retrospectives that repackage previously published work. Manne is known for politically incisive cultural commentary, and, unlike Garner, whose mastery of the personal narrative "I" is unchallenged, he rarely diverges into personal anecdote. An exception here is "On Borrowed Time," the title essay, an abject and intimate account of a recent battle with throat cancer in contrast in tone and style to a more characteristic essay like "A Dark Victory," where Manne entirely occludes the personal in an authoritatively argued recount of changing global attitudes to climate science and policy.
While the "personal" is sometimes a pejorative in relation to nonfiction,1 essays are a persuasive mode in which a degree of subjectivity is assumed but usually as a function of the author's corresponding expertise and authority. Many essayists are experts in their field or otherwise indelibly associated with their topic. Manne's customary objectivity or Garner's intense self-scrutiny are a style of looking and thinking and being that the reader participates in; some essayists take up the personal point of view more strategically, deploying autobiographical detail alongside carefully presented research and evidence in order to sway or persuade, thus harnessing the essay as a form of public speaking. Benjamin Law's 2017 Quarterly Essay "Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance, and the Safe Schools Scandal," for example, details the explosive political backstory of the bungled rollout of an educational program designed to support LGBTQI youth experience within Australian schools. Law uses reconstruction and interviews to narrate key events, to investigate and speculate on what went wrong, and to comment about what could have been better. But it is the juxtaposition of the personal autobiographical details from his childhood as a gay Asian-Australian with an imagining of how such a program could have...