History, literature and creative writing: a new dimension

Document Type

Journal Article


Centre for Australian and New Zealand Studies


Faculty of Education and Arts


School of Communication and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts, Technology, Education and Communications




This article was originally published as: Murphy, F. M. (2013). History, literature and creative writing: a new dimension. Indian Journal of Australian Studies, 4(2011), 31-49.


The relation of history and literature tends to be approached in two main ways. Critics might examine the manner and degree to which writers found their literary works on historical characters and events, usually with a view to determining the authenticity and accuracy of their depictions, the validity of their interpretations, or the work’s ideological implications, with a notable example provided by the mixed critical response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville, which was published in 2005. The novel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Christina Stead Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Miles Franklin Literary Awards. A theatrical adaptation, to be staged in Australia in 2013, is advertised with a reviewer’s paradoxical observation that ‘No truer piece of fiction has ever been written about the Australian past’, but debates raged over its departures from fact in relation to Indigenous encounters with white settlers, provoking questions about ‘truth’ in relation to novelistic treatments of Australia’s past and the drawbacks of fictional trespassing on historical ground. As Brian Matthews points out, the vexed discourse on The Secret River made ‘the history/fiction question sound as if it is a new phenomenon’, whereas ‘the intersection of history and fiction, of works of record and works of the imagination, has been going on for a long time’, and certainly since 1955, following the publication of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, though boundary debates were also provoked by earlier works such as Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils and Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life, published in 1896 and 1903 respectively (Matthews 346), as well as by narrative histories which some critics found too much like fiction, such as Manning Clark’s six volume A History of Australia.

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