This thesis is comprised of a creative extract: Local History and Case Histories and an exegesis: Novelists of the Past, Historians of the Present. The creative extract is part of a much longer project, called an allergy, a multi-generic self-reflexive historiographical metafictional novel which explores ideas of history and fiction, memory and imagination, truth and identity across a number of genres, narratives, periods and voices.
That history and fiction share many similarities is an idea well-established by both historians, critics and novelists, from Lionel Gossman and Hayden White to Richard Jenkins and E. L. Doctorow. The fiction–history debate has also stood at the heart of Australian literary history and Australian history itself, coming to a head during the ‘history’– and ‘culture wars’ declared by then-Prime Minister John Howard shortly after his election in 1996.
These wars coincided with the so-called ‘memoir boom’ in which personal autobiographical narratives and first-person, present-tense fiction rose in popularity among a reading public hungry for ‘authentic’ stories, often by once-marginalised voices. Yet despite historian Mark McKenna calling for a dialogue between historians and novelists, the discussion seemed as vehement and vituperative as those surrounding the history– and culture wars.
The creative extract offers my own parody of the memoir popular during the 1990s, and explores issues of race, authenticity, history, truth and identity, issues that were raised in cases like the controversy over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, reaching back to the Koolmatrie and Demidenko affairs. I use these controversies as a springboard to examine in the exegesis that follows questions regarding issues fiction and fictional truth, imaginative empathy and creative freedom, appropriation and attribution, national and individual identity, especially in the context of Australia’s long and ignoble history of literary hoaxing.
The exegesis examines the textual defences and broader contextual and moral criticisms in both controversies, analysing the rhetorical devices and narrative conventions common to fiction and history; it relates these problems and possibilities for negotiating them creatively and ethically to an allergy.
The conceptual rationale for this thesis is embedded in the work in every possible way. My overall argument is not so much that history and fiction, truth and reality, memory and unreliability are now blurred — for this is an argument that has been made numerous times before — but that the act of retrieving truth, identity, authenticity or memory constitutes a re-imagining of the very elements it seeks to interrogate creatively and critically.
The reader is ultimately positioned as an active creator of the text. The exegesis is followed by a short Appendix which contains a sample of a different section of an allergy by way of demonstrating this; while this section it is not offered for examination it showcases my deliberate merging of the boundaries of the scholarly and the creative.