After the publication of The Secret River, Kate Grenville found herself at the center of a public and highly personal debate about the role of writers in interpreting the nation's history. Australian academic Mark McKenna published an article in which he criticized novelists, and Grenville in particular, for trying to write history. He claimed that Grenville referred to The Secret River as a "work of history," although he could not provide a source for the statement. McKenna He singled out Grenville for her comment that she stood on a step ladder looking out over the academic wars on the interpretation of history. McKenna took this comment to mean that Grenville considered herself superior to academic historians.
The national newspapers and media gave the issue wide coverage, and Grenville came under attack from all sides. The historian Inga Clendinnen published an even more vitriolic attack in an article on Grenville in the Quarterly Essay (Issue 23), which was also notable for its failure to provide sources for its accusations.
Grenville was forced to explain that she did not mean that she stood above the academic debate, just that she stood outside of it. She replied that she was an interested observer of the academic debate over the interpretation of Australia's history. Grenville stated that she does not write history; she takes real events and weaves a story around them. She believes that historical novels give people who are not inclined to read historical tomes a chance to think about history.
Grenville believes that McKenna and the other historians who attacked her were motivated by two factors: 1) They resent that the public pays more attention to novelists than to historians; 2) The 'publish or die' atmosphere that dominates academia pushes academic to seek out media attention to raise their profile and thus improve their chances of receiving funding for their work and for their universities.
The controversy gradually died down, but it left its mark on Grenville's reputation and Australia's literary discourse. McKenna and Clendinnen's inaccurate claim that Grenville believed she was writing history has been widely accepted at fact. However, Grenville has not surrendered to her critics, and she continues to write about Australia's history and the relationship of the white colonists with the Aborigines.