George Turner a Life
By Judith Raphael Buckrich
Melbourne University Press: Carlton South, 1999, 
Pp. 214, $49.95 hardback.

The venturing of literary scholars beyond capital-L Literature should not accompany a retreat from academic standards. New tools will be developed to shift between Shakespeare and science fiction, but accuracy, a concern for contexts and alertness to the fabric of writing remain pertinent whether analysing Damien Broderick or Emily Bronte.

Despite a PhD supervisor, Garry Kinnane, two examiners, Van Ikin and Rosaleen Love, and an editor at Melbourne University Press, Teresa Pitt, Judith Buckrich’s treatment of Australian author George Turner (1916-97) is still not ready for publication. Its introduction claims that Turner wrote ‘four novels, nine science fiction novels of which eight had been the published’. Had Buchrich’s team consulted her bibliography, they might have noticed that Turner had published six novels and seven science fiction ones.

Buchrich met Turner in 1979 and interviewed him several times, taking his recollections as her ‘chief source’. Oral history is no more liable to error than any method of research. It just as its own difficulties. Where possible, its recorder should research the documents first to be prepared for slips in the retelling. Buchrich has taken too much of Turner’s testimony on trust, despite the failings that they both acknowledged in remembering.

One result is that Buckrich’s opening page is itself a piece of fiction. The newborn George and his mum could not have returned to Kalgoorlie by train ‘soon after his birth’ on 8 October 1916 because the transcontinental did not run until 22 October 1917. Similarly, why would his mother ever have had to travel by ‘horse and carriage across the semi-desert flatlands that dominate the landscape beyond the ranges just east of Perth’ when the railway had reached Kalgoorlie in 1896? As the biographer of journalist George Johnston, Garry Kinnane should have been able to tell his student that Keith Murdoch was not the ‘owner’ of the Herald and Weekly Times in 1933 but its managing-director, and that the Herald and Weekly Times never was ‘Melbourne’s afternoon newspaper’, but the name of a company with publications in several States.

If transport and communications are outside the expertise of Buchrich’s academic guides, no such excuse exists for her claim that, between 1967 and 1971, ‘when Turner wrote Cassidy, and certainly before that, there were very few practising novelists in Australia’. When Turner’s first novel appeared in 1959, more than twenty local novelists found publishers. The year he completed the Cassidy manuscript, 1971, saw another score published. The stability of those numbers tells us more about the state of publishing than of the number of practising novelists. Cassidy, after all, waited seven years for publication.

Unencumbered by Hooton and Heseltine’s Annals of Australian Literature, Buckrich embarks on a critical synthesis of the late 1960s:

Those who were writing could be placed into three groups: the Left tradition which included Ruth Park, Frank Hardy, Kylie Tennant … those who were metaphysicists like [sic] Patrick White and David Malouf; and those who were really writing autobiographies in disguise … like [sic] Thea Astley and George Johnston.

David Malouf did not publish a novel until 1975, when Johnno, too, was disguised autobiography, not metaphysical.

Although George Turner spent his early childhood in Kalgoorlie, the 1950s in Wangaratta, and died in Ballarat, and although one strand of his writing explores small-town life, his concerns were never parochial. Like a biologist, he took the population of one community - Treelake-Wangaratta - to make a prognosis for his species. Buckrich does consider these early works within the traditions of the small-town novel from Redheap to Tourmalaine. Nor does she locate Turner’s evocation of post-war Melbourne as a space through which to move against other recreations of our urban life. This mishandling and avoidance of literary contexts extend to Australian Science Fiction when Buckrich does not notice the homage to Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow at the start of The Sea and Summer.

Buchrich has been allowed to pass over the same chunks of Turner’s life as he did: ‘My years with the Commonwealth Employment Service, with the textile trade and in the brewery’. But not only do we hear nothing of the grit of Turner’s paid employments, his writing habits remain unexamined. The biography of an author can never avoid literary analysis because so much of a writer’s life is the exploring of themes and the shaping of sentences. Apart from one hint about a typewriter, we do not hear whether he wrote with a pencil, a fountain pen, or a ballpoint; whether he changed his preferred implement, or whether he used different coloured inks for revisions. Nor are we introduced to his routines, or to how he reworked his drafts. Did he begin with a rough plot, or did he uncover a narrative line as he limned his characters? Were those approaches different over time, and different between the novels of contemporary Australia and his science fiction? Did he keep a commonplace book for the quotations at the head of his chapters?

In investigating Turner’s science fiction, Buckrich has not absorbed his definition of it as ‘the literature of considered ideas’. She interrogates neither Turner’s ideas nor her own. Hence, she shows scant interest in his Turner’s social attitudes, which are not the same as party politics. Although she mentions that, in 1951, he had ferocious, almost violent political arguments with a drinking mate, she did not ask her informant whether those brawls were over the referendum to validate the anti-Communist Bill, on which it is reasonable to assume that Turner was voting ‘No’.

Later, Buckrich declares that Turner was ‘not a Socialist despite the very materialist approach he has to near-future problems’. She defines neither socialism nor materialism, or why they should be connected. Later novels, she notes, included ‘a kind of utopian communism’, but again she gives no clue as to which of its several varieties, from William Morris or Edward Bellamy, she has in mind. Her disdain for the political deprives Turner of the impetus that he indentified behind his second career:

The new author would not be writing science fiction as fans and publishers understand the term; he would be using the techniques to write political fiction; he would be preparing, whether bluntly or subtly, those mental buffers which Ballard had in mind when he called science fiction “the literature of preparation and change”.

We learn nothing of how Turner developed his environmental concerns, nothing of what he read on ecology, how and when he encountered Rattray Taylor, for instance.

Around a deserved discussion of homosexuality are passing mentions which become a bone for Buchrich to worry. When she asked Turner ‘was he?’, he replied that he had had a couple of encounters when young, as most blokes do but won’t admit. He was surprised that so many of his associates assumed that he was that way. In using Turner’s fiction to reveal his desires, Buchrich illustrates how potently he could convey the homo-erotic, as in his account of the massaging of the boxer Cassidy where precision proves passionate. But such evidence is relevant only when cut off from every other behaviour that Turner delineates with the same insightfulness, for instance, the canine reactions in traffic on which that novel’s denouement depends.

Buckrich is too concerned to find out what Turner did with his dick to appreciate that fantasy and practice are far from the same. Her academic advisors have not directed her to the distinctions between the homo-social, the homo-erotic and the homo-sexual. The literature on those men who have sex with other men but do not identify as gay or homosexual is also closed to her. Nor has she been encouraged to relate Turner’s treatment of these matters to their handling in the works of gay Australian writers, such as Martin Boyd, Sumner Locke Elliot, Hal Porter and Randolph Stow. Equally, Buckrich fails to place the recurrence in Turner’s fiction of male-to-male relationships against Ken Cook’s Wake in Fright, the middle part of The Tyborn Affair, Jack Radley’s Good Mates, or the hero worship in Johnno. Her placing Turner ‘in a place that was entirely his own’ takes us nowhere since that is true of every one alive. The task of the historian-critic is to cope with Sartre’s ‘universal-singular’.

Buckrich is distressed by Turner’s use of ‘bitch’ to describe women characters, suspecting that the term voiced his misogyny. To establish this overlap she would have had to have distinguished the authorial voice from those of his characters. To specify how extreme was Turner’s resort to this term, she needed to explore the prevalence of bitch in speech and literature before the 1970s. The objection to bitch by second-wave feminists arose from its ubiquity as well as from its offensiveness. My pious aunt divided her enemies into bitches, mongrels and dingoes. Princess Margaret called her sister one. Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla in 1961 pivots around ‘a poor little hot bitch’, while Girlie Pogson was as vigilant against ‘words’ as the censors who took ‘words’ as evidence of obscenity. With readers left to supply a preceding expletive, bitch was one of the strong words that got past censors, perhaps because they shared its assumptions. Bitch is also camp argot, both as endearment and of abuse, another aspect which Buchrich overlooks despite her fixation on homosexuality.

Mediocre books often prevent good ones. Lets hope that this attempt will provoke another of Turner’s admirers to give us the writer in full. Meanwhile, we can re-read his memoirs, In the heart or in the head.