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Sep 8, 2009

If Sci-fi is a genre, then so is Literature

Okay I'm not buying into the fight. (As Sophie Cunningham said, a few days ago: "When someone is clearly picking a fight, the temptation is just to ignore them.") That's the one over th

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Okay I’m not buying into the fight. (As Sophie Cunningham said, a few days ago: “When someone is clearly picking a fight, the temptation is just to ignore them.”) That’s the one over the Big Fat (1500 pages) Anthology of Australian Literature. But if you are interested in it, here are the links.

The most provocative bit of Peter Craven’s review in the September Australian Book Review is pictured below.
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PENreview1

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The links:

Meanjin editor Soppen-anthologyhie Cunningham‘s response to Craven’s review, in Crikey (see her Meanjin blog). She interrogates his “highly theatrical review”.

Heat editor Ivor Indyk‘s review in the Australian, which contains this: “Indigenous writing was excluded altogether from the Oxford anthology; in the Macmillan it was restricted largely to authors with established literary credentials. Here you get writing with real power, but it leaves you wondering about the boundaries of the literary.” Prof. Indyk also had a few critical things to say at a symposium on the book at the State Library of NSW.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, who edited ‘fiction and drama since 1950’ blogged a fascinating eye-witness account of the launch and sitting through Indyk’s critique of it in the symposium. Her factual response – she counted entries by criteria – makes you wonder about critical readings – that criticisms delivered from Olympian heights may prove to be as subjective as the editorial judgments under review.

James Bradley‘s judicious and measured take on the whole kaboodle, gives serious consideration to Craven’s and Indyk’s remarks: “Kerryn Goldsworthy … has responded to the criticisms Indyk made in the same piece about the under-representation of migrant writers … but it seems to me that both Indyk and Craven are, in slightly different ways, touching upon a real question about how we define literature in this context.”

And Simon Hughes‘ response to Sophie Cunningham, also in Crikey.

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Who writes literature?

Here’s the thing: the questions about the indigenous component of the anthology are over its quality as writing. But there is also a big sidelong question about what is admissible as literature.

Bradley: “My sense (on a pretty cursory read, it must be said) is that the editors have attempted to straddle this divide, presenting a range of writing which seeks to offer a glimpse of the textures and variousness of the Australian experience, and its processing into collective and individual consciousness. Whether they’ve been successful at this or not is an open question. Indyk and Craven think not, others are more positive. But it seems to me they’ve made the right decision in principle by giving away strict definitions of the “literary”.

Cunningham: “Craven wants the Australian canon to be built on exclusion. I, like the editors of the anthology, am interested in an Australian literary and cultural heritage that is based on inclusion.”

Goldsworthy: “The ‘What is literature’ question came up in the Book Show interview that Nicole Moore, Prof Rob Dixon and I did with Ramona Koval on July 31. We argued to Ramona that the documents in question had literary qualities, including the use of rhetoric to persuade and to move the reader, and that this was enough to make a place for them in an inclusive anothology like this one.”

Indyk: “I am happy to embrace the possibility that any kind of writing could have literary qualities but there is a danger here: if, out of a sense of crisis, you include in an anthology of Australian literature all that you think is necessary for its appreciation, then the entity itself might easily go from a state of threatened non-existence to a state in which it included so much that it ceased to be an entity at all.”

Craven makes this claim in his review: “In 1940 no one would have thought there was an Australian Literature.”

Hughes: “Sophie Cunningham admires [the book’s] broad inclusiveness and decries Peter Craven’s desire to see the parameters of the anthology narrowed. By all means make inclusion a plank of Australian literature but please may we include examples that enrich the national literature rather than make it seem (as sometimes in this anthology) a political construction.’

And Hughes also makes this metaphor [which I’m going to mess with]: “There is no doubt that Peter Craven has been a gatekeeper for Lit Land  — or considered himself so  — for a long time. He has tended the canon rather like a gardener, weeding out the ordinary and the adventitious, encouraging variegated blooms and hardy perennials both. Which makes it, naturally, Peter Craven’s garden.”

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The end of Canon Rd, the opening of Literature Garden

So, still not buying into that fight, we might consider instead the question of inclusion and exclusion.
The thing is, perhaps we have got to the end of Canon Rd.

We used to have all these “genres” – lesser beasts in the literary zoorarium. Sweet and funny little children’s books. Sweet and advisory Young Adult books. Quirky and silly science fiction. Happy and sad and happy romance fiction. Angry and bloody and stupid crime fiction. Fast and stupid thriller novels. So many beasties.

Maybe the time has come when the gatekeeper – to the exclusive high worth garden, ie anthologisable quality only – must reconsider her role. No longer is it a question of which kind of beastie may enter the garden (because now the garden has been opened to outsiders, to the zoo inmates), but how powerful and shapely and beautiful it is.

And if now all beasties have, in principle, a right to enter the garden, then the ones already in the garden are just another kind of beastie, in varying conditions of power and shapeliness and beauty.

We currently have a comely modifier, thus “literary” crime fiction. And “literary” everything else – young adult novels, sci fi, cookbooks.

So, to make it plain – it seems to me that “Literature” is now a genre. Just another genre. It occupies one of many sections in the platonic (and my actual, local) bookshop. Perhaps it’s a little messy in categorical terms, but you go there for, oh, something markedly “literary”. A more literary feeling, sensibility, cover design. It’s a tricky category because it’s not about the what, it’s about the how. It’s about “literary” style. You might go there for a book by Kazuo Ishiguro about cloning in a dystopia (Never Let Me Go), but you wouldn’t go there for, say, real science fiction. Real science fiction would never be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, because that’s a prize for the genre called Literature. Sci-fi books win Hugos and Nebulas.

It’s a game. And canon-making is a game, too. The winners of which fit in a little category occupying the three or four shelves that capitalism, if not academe, offers it. Not that commodity values are the only criteria to have bound it. Globalism has made accessible dozens of overseas manufacturers of these once exclusive weapons. And we are now aware of being surrounded by other canons.

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Recent posts:
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Chong Weng Ho — Culture Mulcher

Chong Weng Ho

Culture Mulcher

W. H. Chong is a book designer and artist. He is Design Director at Text Publishing, and a founding member of ABDA (Australian Book Designers Association) where he currently serves as Secretary. His work can be seen at whchong.com.

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