TEXT review

The Best Essays

review by Jay Daniel Thompson


Robert Drewe (ed)
The Best Australian Essays 2010
Black Inc.: Melbourne, 2010
ISBN 9781863954945
Pb, 356pp, AUD29.95


In his introduction, Robert Drewe declares that The Best Australian Essays 2010 will explore 'what this country, and its culture, was about in 2010’ (x; emphasis in original). The book goes some way towards achieving this aim, and it also makes for an absorbing read.

The essays compiled here have previously appeared in Griffith Review, Australian Book Review and The Monthly, amongst other publications. Many of the contributors are prominent names in the field of Australian writing while some are relatively unknown. They address such diverse topics as crime, immigration, the arts, vegetarianism, menstruation, Aboriginal communities. There is even a piece on selecting one’s own burial plot.

The most impressive contribution to The Best Australian Essays 2010 is Anne Manne’s article on the autistic seven-year-old girl who starved to death in her family home in 2007. Manne paints a disturbing portrait of a defenseless child (here referred to as ‘Ebony’) who wound up as ‘a skull wrapped in skin’ due to neglectful parents and a welfare system that failed to protect her (128). Manne’s description of Ebony’s skeletal corpse lying in ‘a bare room littered with faeces’ is the most tragic image I have encountered in any piece of writing for some years (128).

In an equally powerful essay titled ‘The Angry Country’, Melissa Lucashenko covers similar territory to Manne. Lucashenko focuses on Jai Morcom, the fifteen-year-old who was killed during a fight at his high school in Mullumbimby (a rural New South Wales town) in 2009. Lucashenko writes:

A child’s death at school – any school – is a particular kind of tragedy. Schools are meant to be special places for children. It is the essence of a school, at least in theory, that it nurtures and supports young people as it educates them. (274)

Lucashenko then acknowledges that ‘no school can ever wholly protect our kids from those who would harm them’ (274). The author describes the ‘rumour mill’ surrounding the events that led to Morcom’s death (275). Lucashenko argues that this swirl of rumours ‘led to devastating community morale’ in Mullumbimby (275).

On a very different note, I thoroughly enjoyed Alex Miller’s treatise on the joys of fiction-writing. Miller is a prolific novelist and the recipient of several literary awards. His passion for writing reverberates through passages such as the following:

Enthusiasm, joy, energy and imagination, the vividness of memories, all are necessary to each other and are inseparable from one another in the creative act. And when we look back on what we have written, the best of it, we ask ourselves, ‘How could I have done that? How could I have written that? It’s beyond me.’ (271)

A similar enthusiasm for the creative process (albeit a different kind of creative process) is described in Janet Hawley’s essay on Charles Blackman. Blackman has been dubbed ‘Australia’s greatest literary painter’ (181). His artistic profile flourished during the 1960s and 1970s (181). However, in recent decades, Blackman’s fondness for a drink has led to him developing ‘a form of alcoholic dementia’ known as ‘Korsakoff’s syndrome’ (180). As Hawley notes, Blackman’s ill health appears to have dulled his creative edge.

There are moments of fine humour throughout The Best Australian Essays 2010. An example is Peter Conrad’s look at how Kylie Minogue has fashioned herself as a sacred goddess for the MTV generation. He provides the example of her ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ video, in which the singer appeared in a ‘hooded smock’ that (according to the outfit’s designer) tried to ‘evoke "that whole Virgin Mary thing"’ (77). Though, as Conrad wryly notes, ‘it’s doubtful that Our Lady would have had slits in her smock’ (77). The intelligent wit and perceptiveness of Conrad’s essay puts it a league above the standard tabloid celebrity profile.

The most contentious contribution to this volume is Robert Manne’s analysis of media/political panics surrounding asylum seekers. Manne is an astute political commentator and a vocal opponent of xenophobia. He brilliantly describes how asylum seekers have been used as political footballs by the Labor and Liberal parties. Alas, Manne undermines the sophistication of his essay when he advances the following argument:

Neither ‘education’ nor ‘leadership’ seems likely in the near future to make Australians open their hearts to asylum seekers or to challenge the mood of the conservative populist political culture that crystallized at the time of Tampa… This is the situation that Australian friends of asylum seekers must now honestly confront. (336)

Manne appears to suggest that the ‘conservative populist political’ approach to asylum seekers that was popularised by John Howard’s government is virtually ineradicable, and that ‘friends of asylum seekers’ must face this reality. Such a suggestion is simplistic and defeatist. Elsewhere, Manne argues that debates around asylum seekers – particularly those debates that have taken place since 2001 (the year of the Tampa controversy) – have ‘clearly separated Australia’s "battlers" from the inner-city "elites"’ (327). He fails to mention that this conflict between outer-suburban ‘battlers’ and urban ‘elites’ is actually a construct which Howard skillfully exploited in order to further his political agenda.

Finally, any volume titled The Best Australian Essays 2010 will raise the ire of readers who will wonder why a certain piece was not included, or who will question the quality of certain submissions. To this end, Drewe’s decision to edit this book was a thankless one. He must be commended for compiling a volume of engaging and politically-conscious prose.


Dr Jay Daniel Thompson completed a PhD in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne in 2009. He works in the tertiary sector, and is also a freelance writer and researcher.


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Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy