All occasions provide an opportunity to reflect – upon achievements as well as failings – and in the lead up to Australia Day there has been a focus upon the recognition and preservation of our literary history.

On Sunday, Fairfax provided an interesting editorial that noted our ‘tendency to anti-intellectualism and…veneration of physical achievement’ and published a rousing call by head of Text Publishing, Michael Heyward, for a return to Australian literary classics.

Heyward bemoaned the loss of many canonical Australian texts due to their being out of print, ‘our publishing has always been dominated by British houses, which have not always felt the need, simply because a book is part of our national heritage, to keep it available’ and wrote of the dire need for more film and tv adaptations of classic Australian novels that might boost awareness of our cultural heritage. Of most concern, however, was universities’ lack of Australian literature courses:

Our universities have failed for more than a century to create any kind of enduring tradition for the teaching of Australian literature. We are so familiar with this failure we hardly notice. […] 

In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France. It is a rampageous scandal, to borrow a coinage from HHR herself. If I tell you that Patrick White’s The Tree of Man was prescribed on two courses last year, or The Man Who Loved Children, which MUP recently put back into print, on just one, you start to see the extent of the problem.

I share Heyward’s sadness at this situation, and am reminded once again of A. A. Phillips’ famous essay on our cultural cringe. Sophie Cunningham wrote of Phillips’s piece in an editorial for Meanjin’s seventieth anniversary issue, ‘[it] could have been written yesterday.’ While I don’t think it’s true that Australians experience the same level of cringe at their literature and culture now – we only have to look at the literary celebrity of many of our contemporary authors, and even freelance writers and essayists to see how far we have come from Phillips’s time – we still tend to look outwards for literary classics and canonical texts.

The Age noted in its recent editorial, ‘On this Australia Day, most of us know – through fiction and film – American and British stories more deeply than our own.’ It is in this that I feel we have not fully dispensed with the dreaded cultural cringe. As Phillips wrote all those years ago, ‘the dismaying circumstance is that…in any nation, there should be an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article’  and this ‘dismaying circumstance’, as Phillips put it, remains. Studying literature at university usually involves a focus on the canon, but when asked to name literary classics, it is inevitably to international names that we immediately turn. ‘Above our writers – and other artists – looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture.’

But where is the listing of the Australian canon? In several of the comments on the two Fairfax articles, many readers complained of a lack of an established list of classic or canonical Australia titles. My own Googling around to attempt to find one was equally frustrating. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon deals with Australia and New Zealand as one, and lists just fifteen books (although New Zealand only manages one entry among them with Mansfield):

  • Miles (Stella) Franklin My Brilliant Career
  • Katherine Mansfield The Short Stories
  • A. D. Hope Collected Poems
  • Patrick White Riders in the Chariot, A Fringe of Leaves and Voss
  • Christina Stead The Man Who Loved Children
  • Judith Wright Selected Poems
  • Les A. Murray The Rabbiter’s Bounty: Collected Poems
  • Thomas Keneally The Playmaker and Schindler’s List
  • David Malouf An Imaginary Life
  • Kevin Hart Peniel and Other Poems
  • Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda
 and Illywhacker

There is also a book edited by Jane Gleeson-White: Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works. The list is too lengthy to reproduce here, although you can view the contents page here, and there are many of the same names as in Bloom’s shorter list. Of course, as with the broader Western Canon, there are strong gender imbalances here, and therefore Meanjin’s list of classic novels by Australian female writers from their Tournament of Books last year is a wonderful addition (a tradition expanded and continued with the Australian Women Writers Challenge), and Australian Women Writers have also importantly highlighted novels by Indigenous Australian female writers, which should be included in any potential Aus canon too. There have also been interesting debates raised by the National Year of Reading and its selection of representative novels for each state.

Debates and initiatives such as these are encouraging, and suggest that cultural apathy or cringe is something we are steadily moving away from. (Heyward concludes his piece by noting that Text will be releasing ‘a series of Australian classics in cheap editions,’ and The Wheeler Centre is launching next month a new series events: ‘Australian Literature 101.’)

And yet, the neglect of one’s native literary history appears to be a more widespread problem than Heyward’s article suggests. There was a great piece in the New York Review of Books recently, ‘Writing Adrift in the World’ in which Italian academic Tim Parkes similarly argues for the importance of cultivating a knowledge of native writing. Parkes laments what is essentially a globalisation of literature in which novels provide no authentic sense of place at all, but are instead tailored to a global market by dealing with ‘universal’ – read: more widely marketable and international prizewinning – themes.

‘In Europe today, one reads less and less about the immediate society one lives in,’ Parkes writes, and sees the problem with the contemporary novel as,

a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.

Thus, while an author like Orhan Pamuk may offer a strong sense of place, it is one, Parkes argues, ‘increasingly addressed to those outside Turkey, rather than to the Turkish themselves.’ This, however, is in stark contrast to American novelists, who, like Roth for example, ‘invites the young writer into the now ubiquitous second life that most citizens of the world have as passive observers of American culture, a world that often has little or nothing to do with daily experience elsewhere.’

In the face of all this, Parkes sees a knowledge of and engagement with your native canon as fundamentally important,

One of the functions of a canon or a national tradition has been to provide a familiar group of texts, stretching from past to present, constitutive of one’s own community and within which a writer could establish his position, signalling his similarity and difference from authors around and before him. […]

A word spoken at home or school can be dense with nuance and shared knowledge in a way unlikely to occur in a casual exchange at rail station or airport, however fascinating and attractive an exotic traveling companion may be. This is not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.

It’s not a case of privileging the worth of Australian novels over that of international classics, but simply the recognition that Australian writers and readers, like Parkes’s Italian students, need ‘a home from which to set out,’ too.  I look forward to the Wheeler Centre’s series of events on Australian literature, and to Text Publishing’s re-issuing of Aus classics, and I hope the debates continue. I’d be interested to hear from readers too, whether they have titles that should be included in any list of Aus classics, or if indeed they see value in studying an Australian canon at all?

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