The Arts

Mar 5, 2018

Sacred Cows: the case against Cloudstreet

Is Tim Winton's blockbuster novel really as good as Australian culture collectively remembers?

David Latham

Freelance writer

Sacred Cows is a new series dedicated to overrated cultural artefacts and the more deserving ones we've lost sight of in their shadows. Each installment will pose an argument for one or the other, re-evaluating the worth of a text and the praise it has (or hasn't) received.

This week, David Latham makes the case against Tim Winton's 1991 novel Cloudstreet.

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23 thoughts on “Sacred Cows: the case against Cloudstreet

  1. mgpola

    Total agreement-I thought it was just me who thought this unthinking canonisation of anyone from the so called bush was not only silly but not really believable. Books where virtually everyone is either weird, harbouring big secrets and major personality defects or get themselves into totally unlikely scrapes ( the best example has to the vastly stupid World According to Garp) cannot be taken seriously. I think the youth of the author played some part in Cloudstreets elevation but at the end of the day actual content has to be considered the same as any other novel. Cloudstreet is more silly than affecting, very unworldly even to being gauche, leaves no lasting impression, provided little original thought and is really I’m sorry to say forgettable. My favourite Australian author remains Henry Lawson and I am yet to see bettered, although I know it is only a short story, the Drovers Wife for perfection of actual writing about the “bush”.

  2. Bob the builder


    While there’s ample room to criticise Cloudstreet we instead get this list of counter-cliches. Topped off by naming the equally, if not more, pedestrian Tsiolkas as a fitting goal of our adoration.

    If this series continues Crikey, I hope we’ll get better than this intellectually sparse, self-satisfied inner-Melbourne slapdash.

    1. old greybearded one

      I am not going to be as nasty to Tsiolkas, but otherwise, Yep.

      1. Bob the builder

        Yes, that was a bit unfair. What I meant was I think they are writers of a similar calibre, with Tsiolkas slightly behind.

        1. Norm

          I’m willing to be as nasty to Tsiolkas. Though I was as disinclined to read this article (skimmed it) as either of the authors.

  3. old greybearded one

    Plenty of worse novels than Cloudstreet, especially some of the rubbish I read in High School. Personally, I much prefer “Breathe”. However, a few of you urban hipsters need to remember that the other world is still there. As to the “Drover’s Wife”, yep a great yarn and “Past Carin'” is a great poem. Not everything Henry wrote is great though and Tim Winton has other stories, which are great, and capture a kind of person that is there in reality. Patterson wrote of a life from high in the saddle, Henry wrote from down in the gutter. I knew people like the drover’s wife when I was young.

  4. [email protected]

    Yes, yes, yes – except for liking Tsiokas! I’ve always felt somewhat out of the loop, or perhaps looking to be a little too much of a try hard – but I’ve NEVER liked Winton’s work. Grumpy, damaged, dark blokes who find life difficult – not an unusual premise for a novel, but I feel manipulated by the plots instead of being immersed in them. As for rural quirkiness – ergghh – spare me the cliches. Winton as an activist and essayist is a different person though, and I admire that work immensely.

  5. Adrian

    Cloudstreet is a novel that brought me around to enjoying Australian fiction. For that it’s noteworthy in my library. I’m not sure I read much in this article to convince me it’s unworthy.

  6. Sallytwo

    Sad that modern literary critics in Australia still suffer from cultural cringe. Having grown up in Perth in the 50’s I can attest to the veracity of Cloudstreet’s characters’ colloquialisms, attitudes and behaviours. Their lives were pretty accurate representations of what it meant to be working class and Western Australian in the mid twentieth century. This text brought to life a forgotten part of mundane Australian society and made it extraordinary.

  7. Neal Ames

    Brave. Not Cloudstreet, but David for writing this review. I do wonder how you write a negative review of a book that has been re-produced for so many different mediums. I personally am over this cultural cringe that we are obsessed, as a country, in trying to avoid. I loved Cloudstreet, and Breathe and every other Tim Winton book. I loved The Slap, but so what, its not a competition. A good book is a good book! I think that Winton is the best novelist that we have produced and the majority of Australians would agree with me. However, I respect everyone’s opinion and so I acknowledge your points. This might be an very interesting series.

    1. Bob the builder

      Cultural cringe is the word.
      What this country has always suffered from was an intellectual elite dominated by an anti-suburban, anti-bush attitude. Back then it was “real” culture in Britain and Europe they loved; at least now they think their highly unrepresentative type of Australian (inner) urbanism is good enough.
      However flawed the execution, Winton is trying to depict an actual Australia. There are lots of people that live/d this way and think/thought this way, even if they aren’t of David Latham’s acquaintance.

  8. Amy

    What a truely small-minded review! Such a limited perspective is displayed here by Mr Latham ( any relation to Mark?) The comparison of Winton to Tsiolkas is superficial, subjective, as admitted by the reviewer who fails dismally to appreciate the literary genius of Tim Winton, and denies the context of the novelist who wrote such a characteristically nuanced and mature novel at a tender age. The future awarding of the Nobel prize for literature for Winton is a big call but one that I stand firmly behind. Compare instead the writings of Winton to Patrick White, Australia’s sole Literary Nobel Prize winner, and you will see similar, classic, literary skill. I don’t deny Tsiolkas’s skill, and, if he broadens his narrative comtexts, I have no doubt he will win further prizes as he handles contemporary fiction with mastery. He writes classics for his time; Winton writes enduring classics that speak to a universal audience. And that is achieved through whichever contextual time period his novels explore.
    For his arguments to withstand more than a cursary perusal, Latham’s review of Cloudstreet needs deeper, and more masterful, analysis.

  9. Adam Ford

    I just plugged this back into Word. It’s 620 words.
    You can argue about whether it’s a good or bad novel, but I think given its significance you are kind of duty bound to spend a bit more than 620 words on it.
    I was just getting settled in for the argument when the article suddenly ended.

  10. AR

    Winton can write engagingly but always his books disappoint – they entice the reader who keeps expecting something worthwhile but in the end it is like eating a lot of white sliced bread & fizzy pop – bloated & utterly without value.
    I was actually furious at having wasted so much time reading The Riders which has to be a perfect example of his lack of seriousness.
    Sons of Mars was a masturbatory bromance.

    1. Amy

      Granted The Riders was a strange tale but Winton’s language and depiction of inner landscapes is deft and, well, sublime. He is a sensual, rather than cerebral writer – but exceedingly clever.

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