The Best Australian Stories 2010 edited by Cate Kennedy (2010) 270 p.

I’ve been trying to write more short stories lately, so I’m reading and studying a lot of them. This was a bit of an impulse buy; it’s an annual anthology I hadn’t heard of before, put out by Black Inc (which also publishes The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay). Black’s main competitor is Award-Winning Australian Writing, which has a fairly clear methodology. Kennedy’s anthology, on the other hand, appears to define “best” by her own discretion.

I don’t mean that as a complaint – the twenty-nine stories gathered in this book are for the most part excellent. First published in magazines ranging from Island to the Harvard Review, they feature some well-known names like Robert Drewe and Nam Le, but are for the most part written by people I’d never heard of. Scanning the names in Award-Winning Australian Writing 2010, and seeing that there’s no overlap, and considering this was the output from a small country in a single year, and reflecting on how most of these stories completely fly under everbody’s radar… well, it’s actually quite depressing from the standpoint of an aspiring writer. I am a very small fish, and this pond is bigger than I thought.

For a reader, however, The Best Australian Stories 2010 is a showcase of considerable talent. The stories are of course firmly in what Michael Chabon would dub the “quotidian plotless” genre, which is not an insult, but does mean that I recommend this only to those who appreciate Serious Literature (which, for the record, I consider to be a genre like any other).

On that topic, I found it interesting (in a morbid sort of way) to note that the vast majority of stories in this book deal with generally negative emotions, tones and atmospheres. The pages are full of fractured relationships, horrible events, gnawing uncertainties, wistful regrets and outright depression. Despite coming from a diverse group of authors, the overriding tone is without a doubt one of melancholy. There are moments of appreciative happiness, but these are usually contrasted against enough doom and gloom to make you think you’re watching Australian Story. Some manage a more upbeat nature – notably John Kinsella’s “Bats” and Joshua Lobb’s “I Forgot My Programme So I Went To Get It Back” – but these are relatively few. Even the most enjoyable story in the book, Ryan O’Neill’s hilarious “The Eunuch In The Harem,” is a black comedy, relating a literary feud in the pages of a Sydney newspaper, ending in murder and a darkly comic twist.

There’s nothing technically wrong with this, of course, which is why I’m presenting it as a point of interest rather than a mark against the book. Conflict is vital, melancholy doesn’t prevent a story from being good, and if I was reading a single story I would never have noticed it. But when they’re all stacked on top of each other it has an undeniable cumulative effect. Why so sad?

I notice this dejected tone in a lot of indie Australian films and TV shows as well, particularly on SBS; a sweeping sense of doleful nihilism that’s hard to articulate. It stands in stark contrast to real Australia, which for all its flaws is a land of sunshine and good fortune. Is this tendency to focus on the problems and injustices of life something that’s uniquely Australian? Or is it present in most short stories that receive acclaim – another signal that Serious Literature Is Not Supposed To Be Fun?